Striking the balance: How can Steamboat rely on tourism but maintain its identity

People enjoy an evening at Mountain Tap Brewery earlier this week. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Over the past several years, Steamboat Springs and Colorado’s other mountain towns have found themselves in a dilemma: relying on tourism to sustain their economies while also preserving community character, protecting natural resources and ensuring longtime locals and employees can still afford to live in town and do their jobs.

“It’s definitely a balancing act between preserving town character and the environment that attracts these people and a city’s tourism-based economy,” said Margaret Bowes, executive director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. “Our communities absolutely need to protect the things that have made them a destination in the first place.”

“We want the money to build and approve the trails but then we tend to want them for ourselves. That’s the irony of living in one of these places,” Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter

Destination marketing versus destination management

In order to ensure visitors come to town and support the economy, Steamboat relies on forms of advertising such as social media, spot radio and consumer print ads. The community survey, which the city sends to randomly selected residents every few years, consistently shows tourism is, in fact, important to community members. However, according to some city officials, many locals feel tourism has more negative impacts than positive.

“We want the money to build and improve the trails but then we tend to want them for ourselves,” Steamboat Springs City Manager Gary Suiter said. “That’s the irony of living in one of these places.”

While Suiter said it’s nearly impossible to put a cap on the number of visitors coming to town, he looked to the country’s national parks as an example of adverse impacts from too much human activity.

“We come here because of the natural attractions and natural resources and then everyone else wants to come here just as we did,” Suiter said. “I think it becomes too much when you start to negatively impact the natural resources that bring people here.”

Suiter, who has spent decades working in various resort communities, said he has recently seen one phrase popping up more: destination management.

As for what destination management actually is, tourism officials shared varying opinions, but most agreed it involved preserving a community’s natural resources while welcoming visitors.

“What’s become apparent in recent years, especially with the growth of Colorado overall, is that all marketing needs to take in the impacts on destination that it’s promoting,” said Mia Vlaar, economic development director for the town of Vail.

Experts also emphasized that destination marketing and management should be customized to fit a specific community’s needs.

In Steamboat’s case, Steamboat Springs City Council is discussing whether to ask voters to repurpose funds currently being spent on trails for destination marketing and management.

As for what the management piece could look like locally, the Steamboat Springs Chamber would like to implement leave-no-trace campaigns, trail education and the Care for Colorado campaign, a partnership between Leave No Trace and the Colorado Tourism Office that aims to educate visitors about safe and responsible outdoor recreation.

“How do we protect Colorado’s precious resources and how do we increase people’s knowledge about responsible travel,” said Barb Bowman, stewardship contractor at the Colorado Tourism Office. “We’re getting to the point where sustainability for any destination will have to be a focus.”

Other Colorado communities have implemented similar programs to ensure their public lands are protected while making space for people to enjoy them.

“It’s become obvious through the COVID era that there are capacity limits with national parks and forests,” Vlaar said. “In resort communities, we have an obligation to ensure that we’re marketing smart.”

Cheryl Stevens of Fort Collins and her friend Pam Warren from Arkansas were among the people visiting downtown Steamboat Springs on Friday as the summer tourism season begins to heat up. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Can communities reach a limit?

Jon Stavney, executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, said vacation destinations like Steamboat may soon be asking themselves if there is such a thing as too much marketing. That’s the case as many former visitors have become second-home owners during the pandemic, when they discovered they could work remotely and chose to do so in mountain destinations.

“I do think it’s a question we need to start asking,” Stavney said. “Some of the people who’ve been around for a while are starting to feel that there’s some deterioration of quality of life.”

Stavney said obviously most people who moved to ski towns during the pandemic could afford expensive homes in such places, but that created further economic inequality for a community’s already unbalanced workforce.

“It just furthers that challenge for housing the people who are building the quality of life,” Stavney said. “It takes a lot of potential workers in all these different industries to have really quality services and businesses.”

In a discussion Tuesday about putting more funds towards destination marketing and management, several City Council members raised issue with bringing more visitors to town. Community members have expressed they feel overwhelmed by too many visitors and are concerned with new residents increasing real estate prices, they said.

Bowes also said as communities become more popular, who can afford to stay for the weekend and recreate in a mountain community becomes more limited.

“We want the young family from the Front Range to come spend the weekend in our community,” Bowes said. “As our communities get to be more expensive places to live, it does tend to limit the types of folks that can come and visit our communities.”

Diners sit outside the Primrose on Yampa Street on Friday in downtown Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Finding a balance

All tourism experts interviewed emphasized the same point, that communities need tourism to thrive, and finding the line over when tourism has taken too great a toll can be difficult.

“I don’t think there is necessarily a line in the sand between destination management and marketing,” Stoller said. “They should be working in tandem to find that balance of supporting businesses and enabling employment.”

Suiter also said, while many locals may feel frustrated with floods of visitors and new homeowners, the city cannot prevent visitors from relocating to Steamboat or purchasing an additional home here.

“There’s no way we can tell someone they can’t move here,” Suiter said. “The gates are open if you can move here and choose to buy a second, third or fourth home here.”

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