Elizabeth Milias: Aspen Council: Tourists, go home!
The Red Ant
The Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA) recently presented its five-year destination management plan to City Council and, in short, it fell flat. The 36-page document is aggressive, compiled with a consultant to “coordinate management of all aspects of a destination that contribute to a visitor’s experience, taking into consideration the perspectives and expectations of local residents, visitors, industry businesses, the environment and local government.” The problem wasn’t so much the plan itself; I’m told all the hot tourist destinations are doing them. The problem is that ACRA bit off far more than it could chew.
You may ask, as I did, why Aspen’s chamber is attempting to take on such herculean tasks when many of these roles actually belong to the city. Clearly, the city has abandoned its responsibilities in favor of playing subsidized housing developer, enacting moratoriums, brainstorming new uses for the Armory, debating the Entrance to Aspen and saving the planet from climate change. Therefore, ACRA, a hybrid organization that serves as a chamber of commerce as well as a destination marketing organization that serves to support the Aspen business community, attract visitors to the resort and enhance the visitor experience, attempted to herd all the cats into one ambitious plan.
With zero public policymaking authority, ACRA’s well-intended solutions to the issues our local government is neglecting were not particularly well received. But council did embrace the over-arching focus of the plan: despite tourism being the most important economic driver of Aspen and its surrounding communities, the plan is not about tourism. It’s primarily about local residents and protecting their quality of life from the onslaught and effects of tourism. Locals first, baby.
Outreach on how Aspen can survive its reputation economically, socially, environmentally and existentially revealed ugly and alarming truths about who we have become as a community. Tourists are a nuisance. Residents dislike Aspen’s “touristy nature.” Tourism contributes to the loss of small-town character. Some visitors don’t respect Aspen. New visitors are less considerate and have higher expectations. The offseasons are shrinking. ACRA needs to develop “responsible tourism.” The city is too busy, there’s too much traffic, and more full-time residents are stressing our infrastructure. We need to educate our tourists. There is too much social inequity. You get the picture. This approach politically panders to an embittered local audience yet frighteningly bites the hand that feeds us.
By advocating for community value-based efforts to address traffic, the environment, parking and even housing, ACRA was hoping for collaboration with council around a common vision, but council gave ACRA a beat down for highlighting their ongoing failures in each of these areas. Besides, council has no vision.
Council then displayed their irrational views of tourism and added their personal desires to what they strangely treated as ACRA’s “to-do” list. Ward Hauenstein stated that “we need a sustainable community more than we need tourists,” asserting, “We are over-visited at this point.” He wants “congestion pricing” and agrees with John Doyle that we need “climate action” immediately. Torre wants to “support employees” and Skippy Mesirow wants “more money for workforce housing” reflected in our tourism policies. This is typical of our business-ignorant council; when reacting to something they don’t like, they use the stick (or ax) to stop it in its tracks, rather than acknowledging its importance and finding a way to reduce the impacts.
Meanwhile, Rachel Richards weighed in with rare wisdom: “ACRA needs to step up and start taking the side of the workers.” She’s right, it does.
Chamber-member businesses are dramatically affected by our labor and housing shortage. ACRA can and should be vociferous in its support of local businesses through unrelenting advocacy for workforce housing, specifically seasonal rentals, right-sizing and efficient management of our housing inventory. It’s time to join growing list of rational local voices in demanding an independent APCHA audit and a formal housing needs assessment before building hundreds of for-sale three-bedroom condos at the Lumberyard for middle-class families. ACRA’s powerful voice would dramatically impact the conversation. This is the low-hanging fruit. It is also the role of a chamber.
As for destination management, we may indeed be a victim of our own success, and it’s a good first step to stop marketing Aspen in the offseason. But if we’re really “too full,” perhaps it’s time to turn off the spigot by repealing the 2% lodging tax, 75% of which goes to tourism promotion. In the meantime, the plan will focus on niche, diverse and multicultural markets through value-based targeting and “passion-ography” that will attract travelers who “positively impact locals.” That, and scolding our visitors until they learn our model behavior. (Have we lost our collective minds?)
Businesses are encouraged to join ACRA in order to offer their employees a discounted ski pass. The chamber also produces iconic special events and provides vital visitor services. Attempting to reconcile the divergent expectations of local residents, visitors, industry businesses, the environment and local government in Aspen is a simple recipe to becoming council’s scapegoat for their growing list of public policy failures. It is not the role for such a respected civic body.
Are we incredibly fortunate to live in a world-class tourist destination or do we live in a community that we allow people to visit when it suits us? Contact TheRedAntEM@comcast.net.