One Sunday afternoon this past April, two traveling companions and I attempted to get a table at Creekside American Bistro in Sedona, Ariz., only to be discouraged by a long wait.
When we asked if there might be availability the following afternoon, the hostess didn’t mince words. Waits of an hour or more can be expected every day, she said, no matter the day of the week.
Sedona, set among a cathedral-like mix of towering sandstone buttes, mesas and plateaus, enjoyed a surge of visitation during the pandemic, even as most cities around the U.S. saw their tourism spigots run dry until only recently.
In May, for example, the town of 10,000 took in a combined 35% more sales and bed tax receipts than it did in May 2019.
But Sedona is not alone. Outdoor-focused destinations throughout the interior West vastly outperformed the overall U.S. tourism industry during the Covid-19 pandemic as travelers sought open space and outdoor recreation amid lockdowns and closures of indoor businesses and attractions.
In the Big Sky community in southwest Montana, for example, last summer saw a year-over-year bed tax collection increase of 19%; in the fall, the increase jumped to 23%, said Tim Drain, president of the Visit Big Sky board of directors.
March of this year, meanwhile, was the best tax collection month ever for the area, and Drain said this summer is also set to be the area’s biggest on record.
“Big Sky has been inundated for the last year,” he said. “I kind of almost feel bad about it because so many other destinations are hurting.”
In nearby Bozeman, Mont., surging visitor demand has led airlines to more than double the number of routes, from 22 to 46, that served the airport this July compared with July 2019, according to Cirium flight schedule data. Four new airlines have also begun service to Bozeman during the pandemic: Southwest, JetBlue, Sun Country and the start-up carrier Avelo, which will end it lone Bozeman route in September.
Airport director Brian Sprenger said growth had been expected but that the airport is about 1.5 years ahead of the growth arc forecast in 2019.
The same dynamic is playing out in the smaller town of Durango, Colo., which enjoys a beautiful but remote location among the San Juan mountains near the state’s southwest corner. There, the number of flights will be up 20.1% in July compared with July 2019, according to Cirium data, including new twice-daily Delta service to the carrier’s hub in Salt Lake City.
Growth at Durango-La Plata County Airport is likely to continue in the coming years even as the world opens up, predicted aviation director Tony Vicari. The increases, he said, will be fueled by the area’s growing population, booming housing market and the spread of remote work.
Vicari is just one of many who believes that even as urban areas regain their appeal for travelers and international markets slowly reopen, the Mountain West will retain some of the visitor share it has gained during the pandemic.
“The door to the outdoors has been opened. And no, it won’t be shut just because the pandemic is behind us,” said Candace Strauss, CEO of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. “I believe we’ll continue to see new audiences in the years ahead.”
Sprenger offered a similar sentiment.
“Traditionally, in the state of Montana, what we’ve found is that once we get someone here they are much more likely to come back. And we’ve just expanded the number of people who have been here by an incredible amount,” he said.
But those larger crowds, fueled in part by people who aren’t familiar with an outdoor ethos, are certain to be a mixed blessing, boosting tourism-centered economies but also causing traffic jams, increasing litter on the trails and straining resources of small mountain communities.
“There’s a whole education process that we’re really going to have to be diligent about moving forward, because we live in these special places,” Strauss said. “To preserve them for future generations, people need to understand what’s expected of them when they come.”
Concern among Sedona residents was evident when I visited in April. Consecutive editions of the local Sedona Red Rock News led off with stories about crowding. “Residents vent on Cathedral Rock parking,” read one headline, referencing an especially popular trailhead that is close to residential neighborhoods.
Complaints were even louder in the Lake Tahoe area last summer, when residents took to Highway 50, the main route from South Lake Tahoe back to the Bay Area, holding up signs telling tourists they weren’t welcome.
But if surging tourism is generating a backlash among residents of mountain resort towns, it’s also bolstering business communities. Based upon bookings through June, average lodging rates in the 18 Mountain West resort towns monitored by the business intelligence platform DesiMetrics will be up 31.5% this summer (May 1 through Oct. 31) compared with summer 2019. Occupancy, meanwhile, is expected to be up 7.1% (DesiMetrics is a division of Inntopia, a sister company of Travel Weekly.)
Drain, who for his day job is the general manager of the luxury vacation rental company Natural Retreats Big Sky, said that every month since July 2020 has been a record-setter for the company. Natural Retreats expects that trend to continue through August.
The story this summer will be much the same for Utah Luxury Tours, which puts together custom small-group tours of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks (Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef) as well as other parks in the Mountain West region. The company has doubled its pre-pandemic guide roster to 16, said business development consultant Joel Pieper.
“We think it is going to be one of the busiest, if not the busiest, summers that we’ve ever had,” he said.
Pieper said travel advisors are among those who have caught on to Utah’s growing appeal.
“The portion of bookings we’ve taken from agents has definitely increased and will continue to increase,” he said.
That’s in part because Utah Luxury Tours leveraged the pandemic to do robust agent outreach, he added.
Utah, too, is experiencing overcrowding in areas. During an early June visit to the state, I found moderate crowds at Bryce National Park, but in Zion, the crowds were larger. During a day enjoying Zion’s famous Narrows trail, which takes hikers into the shallow Virgin River as it winds through a deep, sandstone-framed canyon, I felt certain I must have encountered more than 1,000 others.
Pieper said Utah Luxury Tours avoids some of the Narrows crowds by getting on the river at dawn. In general, the company navigates visitor density by encouraging customers to travel offseason, avoiding peak times of day at the most popular attractions and by visiting lesser-known locales.
This advice will likely need to be applied more generally in the region. Tom Foley, Inntopia’s senior vice president for business process and analytics, said that he believes a fundamental pivot is taking place in the demand for mountain travel.
For destination management organization (DMOs), that shift has brought about an inflection point. They have to decide whether to maintain a tourist-centric approach to their promotions or pivot to a more balanced approach that places more emphasis on residents.
Some DMOs are already making that adjustment.
Breckenridge, Colo., for instance, developed a destination management plan in 2019, before the pandemic began. The plan comprises a 10-year road map with the goal of ensuring “economic sustainability for the community while preserving the quality of life for residents and quality of place for visitors.”
The plan’s goals include elevating and protecting the town’s character, delivering a more balanced year-round tourism economy and moving people from vehicles to walking or biking.
The Breckenridge Tourism Office has pushed forward on those goals during the pandemic, launching “B Like Breckenridge,” a campaign that encourages people to walk more, leave no trace, stick to the trails and respect wildlife, among other things.
The DMO is also working to draw more offseason tourism, for instance by holding a craft spirits festival in mid-October, and is also tailoring marketing more aggressively toward guests who will stay through the week, rather than just weekends.
“There has to be a harmony. A balance of a tourist economy and a residents’ place,” said Austyn Dineen, the tourism office’s public relations director.
In Sedona, marketing efforts are also geared toward driving visitation during the off-peak periods, which fall in the summer and the winter. But Strauss said that efforts to better manage tourism are handcuffed to a significant degree by an Arizona state law that forbids municipalities from regulating vacation rentals. Since that law was put in place in 2016, the equivalent of 2,500 rooms have been added to Sedona’s short-term lodging stock, she said.
Still, the town and its tourism leaders are taking a number of steps aimed at mitigating the impact of the area’s rapidly growing popularity.
In April, the Sedona Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Early this year, the city hired its first transit manager. And the town is also pushing forward with the Sedona in Motion transportation plan, which, among other items, seeks to mitigate the regular traffic backups that occur on Arizona State Route 89A heading into the city’s main Uptown commercial district.
Also on the plate, said Strauss, is a shuttle system slated for launch next March to take visitors to Sedona’s most popular trailheads.
To some in Sedona, tourism is associated primarily with trash, traffic and trailhead congestion, Strauss said.
“It’s not the truth. Yet we need to try and mitigate those impacts,” she said. “At the same time, I would rather be experiencing growing pains than job losses, business closures and a community crumbling and losing public services because there is no money.”