Looking ahead | SteamboatToday.com

Looking ahead

Author to discuss the link between tourism and the local economy

— The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association is preparing to take an unblinking look at the impact tourism has on the community, then pose the rhetorical question, “Where do we go from here?”

The chamber has invited Hal K. Rothman, author of the book “Devil’s Bargains, Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West,” to be the keynote speaker at its economic summit, June 7 and 8. Rothman’s book, as the title implies, probes the tradeoffs small communities must make once they embark on the path of tourism.

Chamber Executive Vice-President Sandy Evans-Hall said Rothman’s book cites Steamboat Springs as one Western town that has managed to hang onto its identity despite increasing dependence on tourism. She expects him to talk about what the community needs to do to continue to succeed in preserving its sense of place and character in the changing landscape of tourism ahead.

“We’re going to focus on our tourism economy, and where we want to go, and we’ll be discussing how to get there,” Evans-Hall said. After hearing Rothman’s keynote address Thursday night, Evans-Hall said participants will be invited to come back on Friday and tackle such pragmatic issues as funding Steamboat’s airline program in the future, and how Steamboat is branded in the market. There will also be discussions about how Steamboat fits into Colorado’s tourism picture, Evans-Hall said.

Rothman is an editor and professor of history at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

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Rothman makes it clear to his readers that he will explore the downsides to tourism when he writes in the introduction to his book: “The embrace of tourism triggers a contest for the soul of a place.”

Tourism represents a devil’s bargain, Rothman asserts in the book, because it transforms culture into something new and foreign, that may or may not offer the potential to rescue economies.

Despite those strong words, Rothman says he’s not anti-tourism.

“Tourism is here to stay, and Steamboat’s done it better than almost any place else. “You were the place where people were able to do things in a way that serves the community as well as tourism. And that’s pretty special.”

Towney Anderson said it would be a mistake to assume that Rothman is a contrarian who is coming to Steamboat to bash tourism. Anderson is a member of the Chamber’s Economic Development Council and is working on the committee putting together the summit. Anderson agreed that it’s a little risky for the chamber to bring Rothman in as its keynote speaker, but suggested the timing may be right to take that risk.

“Hal Rothman isn’t coming here to dump on us as a tourist town,” Anderson said. Instead, Anderson said, he can be expected to provide some answers to the question, “How do you remain a tourist town and not lose your town?”

Anderson pointed out that “Devil’s Bargains” was written in 1998 in the midst of an economic boom that was buoying tourism. Now that the tourism economy is not so buoyant, he anticipates Rothman may take an updated look at some of the assertions in his book.

“We’re going to ask Hal to take a look at the future,” Anderson said. “Recreation has been a part of this community since 1913. Let’s face it tourism is a huge part of the community.”

Rothman said Steamboat must find a way to continue to prosper even as skier numbers inevitably decline with the aging baby-boom generation.

“What Steamboat needs to do is repackage its assets,” Rothman said. “You need to understand what it is you have to offer and who is going to be visiting.”

Very few Western resorts have succeeded in repackaging themselves to balance skiing in winter with summer tourism. Steamboat is an out-of-the-way place, and the local tourism industry needs to turn that disadvantage into an advantage.

Anderson said many people would agree that Steamboat’s strong community identity is the very thing that distinguishes it in the tourism market. In a declining tourism market, preserving that sense of community could turn out to be the best thing for tourism.

The question is, “How do you pull a community together rather that allowing declining tourism to pull you apart?” Anderson asked.

Rothman asserts in his book that tourism is not a cure-all for communities with economic challenges.

“Tourism is a devil’s bargain, not only in the twentieth-century American West, but throughout the nation and the world,” Rothman writes in the introduction to his book. “Despite its reputation as a panacea for the economic ills of places that have lost their way in the post-industrial world, or for those that never found it, tourism typically fails to meet the expectations of communities and regions that embrace it as an economic strategy.

(They) welcome tourism as an economic boon, only to find that it irrevocably changes them in unanticipated and uncontrollable ways. From this one enormous devil’s bargain flows an entire collection of closely related conditions that complement the process of change in overt and subtle ways.”

Rothman said Steamboat has succeeded where others have failed in the struggle to maintain a genuine small town identity while developing its tourist business.

Anderson’s hope is that Rothman will provoke attendees at the Economic Summit to think of themselves as part of the overall community instead of as an individual, or an individual business owner, then return Friday to try to devise a strategy to move forward as a community.

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