Long before Colorado shuttered for the COVID-19 lockdown, the Durango Area Tourism Office was working to avoid the overtourism problems that have befuddled other nearby destinations, such as Rocky Mountain National Park.
The local tourism office’s approach was simple: spread tourists out over time and geography to avoid an unsustainable spike in trash and trail erosion at Durango’s most popular tourist destinations.
Durango has no shortage of trails and attractions to accomplish the goal, with more than 300 miles of trails within 30 minutes of downtown, according to Durango Trails – formerly Trails 2000.
COVID-19 has renewed conversations about responsible tourism worldwide, and the Durango Area Tourism Office is taking the opportunity to craft a sustainable tourism strategy moving forward.
Part of the strategy is a survey of Durango-area residents to learn more about their pain points when it comes to tourism in their hometown, said Theresa Graven, spokeswoman for the tourism office.
“We don’t want to just preach at people and tell them what to do,” Graven said.
The tourism office wants to gather insights about how people living in the area year-round feel about tourism and prioritize working on what their concerns are, she said.
The survey was launched several weeks ago, but residents have until Friday to submit responses. When residents submit a response, they are automatically entered to win a $150 gift card.
Results so farThe tourism office had received 261 responses as of Tuesday, but Graven said she hopes for more insight from locals about how tourism could change to improve or protect quality of life in Durango.
Clear priorities have already emerged from the responses, including fire safety, limiting trash and erosion on trails, and respecting cultural sites.
The Ice Lake Basin, with hiking trails near Silverton and Ouray, is one example of an overused trail system that could benefit from less traffic during certain times of the year, Graven said. The location stands out in her mind because she remembers her husband picking up at least a dozen Gatorade bottles and other single-use plastic trash items along the trails several years ago.
Near the campsite, the trails are also widening from erosion and overuse, a danger for beautiful, iconic environmental landmarks like the Ice Lakes in the “age of the Instagram selfie,” Graven said.
That doesn’t mean the Durango Area Tourism Office is trying to slow tourism or diminish the industry. Major events like the 416 Fire and COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated how vital the tourism industry is to Durango’s economy, particularly during the summer months. The survey will help the city be thoughtful in “spreading people out geographically throughout the year,” Graven said.
Mary Monroe Brown, spokeswoman for Durango Trails, said in an email to The Durango Herald that education about sustainable tourism is “an important element to connect trail users to their personal stewardship responsibility.”
For Rod Barker, owner of the Strater Hotel in downtown Durango, making decisions about tourism autocratically always “seems out of sort.”
“They (tourism officials) don’t always know what the impacts are. ... Tourism is the lifeblood of this community,” Barker said.
The Strater Hotel is an independent business, but it draws visitors from around the world. Barker and his staff have worked hard to implement social distancing, wear face masks and deep clean regularly.
“I don’t want throngs of people in the street passing around COVID-19,” Barker said, “but this is a small community and we employ a lot of people.”
Cultural sites a priorityThe statewide tourism office initiated a similar sustainable tourism strategy in 2017, which the Durango Area Tourism Office is trying to localize. One of the ways the city can do that is by prioritizing protecting Native American cultural and archaeological sites from disturbances, Graven said. Doing so is the third highest concern among people who have so far completed the survey, as it is “so much of who we are here,” Graven said.
Mesa Verde National Park is a classic example of why it is beneficial to preserve such sites, but many other archaeological sites are not protected.
“People take pottery shards, carve their names into trees and build cairns (human-made piles of stones) that are not appropriate and can damage these sacred sites,” Graven said. Based on the survey response, the tourism office will prioritize educating visitors about why these sites are sacred.
With the introduction of COVID-19, the tourism office will also prioritize recovery from the pandemic’s public health and economic impacts. The office has paused ads in Arizona and Texas, and is focusing its marketing efforts solely on Coloradans by encouraging people to travel in state during the summer months.
With Durango being part of the Four Corners, that can be difficult when New Mexico is less than an hour away and the Front Range is six hours away.
In Barker’s experience, however, “what you market for today may not bring results until months later,” he said. And to label everyone in Colorado as safe and people in New Mexico or Texas as not safe does not make sense, Barker said.
“In May, we were already filling up with out-of-state plates,” Graven said. The survey will help the tourism office “take a proactive approach to asking residents how they feel about it,” she said.