Aspen capacity: How full is full?
How many tourists can squeeze into Aspen?No one knows for sure.There are 7,838 pillows officially available for weary guests to lay their heads on at night, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, a local reservations agency. Tomcich also keeps close tabs on the state of Aspens accommodations, including the resorts pillow count.The tally includes hotels and lodges, as well as condos and homes rented out by local property-management firms anything in the short-term rental market. What it doesnt reflect is local residences that are rented out to tourists beneath Tomcichs radar. They are rented out directly by their owners, for example, or leased for the ski season by overseas tour operators who then rent them out on a weekly basis as part of vacation packages.Theyre not blatantly advertised as overnight accommodations, Tomcich said. Theres no way I can put my finger on it. Its definitely a gray area.At Christmas/New Years, its probably a far bigger number than it is the first week of February.At its peak, Tomcichs pillow count totaled 9,959 pillows during the 1994-95 ski season. The number has dropped since then, as lodges went out of business and were converted to other uses, but some resort officials are wondering how many uncounted pillows exist short-term accommodations that arent, for one thing, subject to the citys sales tax.For international tour operations, mostly based in the United Kingdom, the transactions take place overseas and a package price never reveals a nightly rate, according to Tomcich.The situation is hardly new, nor hardly unique to Aspen, he added. In fact, a check of tour operator Web sites in the United Kingdom indicates they offer packages at ski destinations around the world.Lately, though, City Council members have pondered the magnitude of the home-rental phenomenon.Lets get a handle on whats going on, said Councilwoman Rachel Richards at a recent council retreat.Several lodge owners also noted the private-sector competition in a recent meeting with the council.We certainly need to understand the extent to which thats happening, Mayor Helen Klanderud responded.Any rental of a unit for less than 30 days is subject to the citys sales tax, according to City Manager Steve Barwick. It is collected on the residences handled by property management firms, but city officials dont doubt some number of rentals dont contribute to the citys coffers.Yeah, I could rent my home tomorrow and no one would know, Klanderud said.Some homes that are rented on a short-term basis are likely violating the citys residential zoning, according to Chris Bendon, city planner. Or, its legal and the city is justified in getting taxes, he said.On the other hand, noted one city observer, it may not make sense to discourage the practice if the resort is worried about its dwindling bed base.I think one of the issues is, somebody whos renting their five- our six-bedroom house, its kind of like a small lodge, isnt it? said Yasmine dePagter, whose family runs the Holland House ski lodge. I just think those pillows need to be counted.People are saying, well, weve lost a thousand pillows. It would be interesting to know the numbers, she said.Meanwhile, its what lodge owners can and cannot do with their properties that is getting all the scrutiny, complained Jack Simmons, dePagters husband.I dont see all the homeowners in the West End under the scrutiny of the City Council for renting rooms, he said.