Britta Gustafson: Tourism’s footprints |

Britta Gustafson: Tourism’s footprints

Leaders should prioritize nature, small-town character

Britta Gustafson
Then Again
Britta Gustafson for the Snowmass Sun

I’m guilty of feeling like I’ve “got to get there before it’s ruined,” wanting to travel to some special location before it’s “spoiled” and becomes too popular and overrun with tourists. I also find it sad that the ideology has become the part of what travel is: See it first, get your piece of it. That’s something I believe we must constantly work to resist in a tourist town.

Here in Snowmass, our tourism driver seems well established as a family-centric town with world-class skiing. Still, we’re often seen as an extension of Aspen and its amenities. Perhaps we encouraged that family-friendly atmosphere only as a way to set us apart from the bright and shiny marketing strategies of our glittery, more famous neighbor.

I was thrilled reading Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s recently released Aspen Destination Management Plan. I may live in Snowmass, but I love Aspen just as much as any little sister who taunts the celebrity sibling in whose shadow she has grown up. I think it’s worth considering here as well: Addressing visitor pressure, enhancing the Aspen experience and preserving small-town character could all be applied just as well to our life-work balance here in Snowmass.

We ought to continue promoting our wilderness connection and fostering the small-town atmosphere of boutique businesses and local restaurants rather than adding more glamorous offerings for an indulgent luxury lifestyle that I predict will trend out soon enough.

We need to carry on the traditions of stewarding our outdoor amenities by continuing to assist visitors and newcomers in understanding the impacts we all have on our environment, and by modeling how to maintain balance and promote respect. This can come at a cost to development and over-development; we’ll need to resist instant gratification to do it.

The value comes in the preservation of our quality wilderness-symbiosis experience for decades, maybe even generations to come, without losing all authenticity along the way.

I recognize that phrases like “eco-friendly” and “authentic” border on cliché, making it hard to promote these ideologies with integrity. That’s where our leadership must be called to action.

The tourism footprint is enormous here. Unlike many locations discovered and exploited, here in Snowmass we built it so that they would come. Now, we’ll need to create a shared agenda for our tourism that remains in balance with the quality of life for those of us who live and work here.

Globally, and here on a micro level, the tourism industry is dominated by hospitality companies that seem to prioritize profitability over social and environmental responsibility. Quality control may be our only defense against losing the quality of life for our community of locals that work so hard to maintain.

We can’t price ourselves out completely. As seductive as it is to mine out all the gold at the base of the mountain, that strategy wears down the very structure that sustains it. Tourists are fleeting, their interests ever fickle, their awareness at times questionable; but their impact on our community, environment and culture can last forever. It’s up to our local leaders to ensure that impact is a positive one.

Not that long ago, this was a place where wide open spaces and nature connections were a way of life. Now our very culture is vulnerable to commodification, our landscape and viewscape sold to the highest, “tallest,“ bidder.

Quality over quantity: Yes, we want to reach that critical mass, but maybe we focus more on tourist trends like “authentic experiences” and “community-based” locations instead of trying to follow the appeal of excess.

Maybe that means the luxury vacation of the Aspen jet-setter stays on that side of the roundabout. Over here, our visitors can still bask in the sunshine of an après-ski scene that isn’t set in the shadows of mega mansions and enjoy the company of their ski instructors and other locals as they coexist in a space where the guest-versus-staff dynamic dissolves, and where our footprints all work within the natural environment rather than against it.

It will be hard work to resist the allure of the bright, shiny objects of the now, but it will be worthwhile for the long haul.

We should want to attract a certain type of vacationer: the kind who respects the local lifestyle and small-town character, and understands that there is an impact of their presence on a place.

Because often, the most memorable experiences of all can be rooted in emotional draw, in the relationships with other people sharing a space they all love. That tourist wouldn’t want to be exploitative. That tourist would want to get to know our home, respect it and share the experience.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at