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Durango adopts broad new strategy for tourism management

City, Visit Durango tasked with striking balance between revenue streams and community values
Oscar Uriost and Ruby Murillo from Anaheim California stop in the Durango Welcome Center on Thursday looking for things to do during their weeklong trip to Durango. Durango City Council just approved a tourism master plan that seeks a balance between economic needs satisfied by tourism and a comfortable, not overcrowded, navigatable community demanded by residents. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Love it or hate it, tourism plays a major role in Durango’s economy.

Critics say unrestrained tourism is the cause of soaring home prices, parking shortages and traffic congestion, and the jobs the industry creates don’t always provide livable wages.

But the tourism industry is an economic machine for the city and local businesses. It employs over 3,000 people, accounts for 20% of the city’s sales tax revenue and contributes more tax revenue through the city’s 5.25% lodgers tax, which is used to support various programs like transportation, public art and tourism marketing.

Despite being a significant source of revenue, city officials acknowledge tourism can’t be allowed to run rampant without oversight or forethought.

Last month, Durango City Council adopted a destination management master plan, a 10-year road map for controlling tourism.

The master plan was developed through 2023. It relies on input from businesses, organizations and residents, including people who think tourism marketing and advertising has gone too far. It leaned on survey data collected over the past several years, which demonstrate how touchy of a subject tourism is.

A Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train pulls into the Durango Depot in May 2021. The D&SNG is a big draw for tourists visiting Durango. The city approved a new destination management master plan last month to guide sustainable tourism for the next 10 years. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Tom Sluis, spokesman for the city and city liaison to the Visit Durango board of directors, said a 2023 study by New Bridge Strategy revealed 76% of respondents believe less money should be spent on tourism marketing and promotion. But a separate study conducted by New Bridge showed 78% of voters recognize the importance of tourism to Durango’s economy.

“People are, understandably, conflicted,” he said in an email this week.

The executive summary of the city’s new destination management master plan warns that the cost of inaction on tourism “must not be ignored.”

The master plan touches on the housing shortage, transportation needs and even student training for careers in hospitality.

The plan was crafted with input from a 16-member task force, 40 participants across seven focus groups and more than 25 individual interviews, according to the plan itself.

Durango City Council adopted a new destination management master plan – a broad game plan for handling tourists for the next decade – at its March 12 meeting. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The plan tasks Visit Durango, the area tourism office, and the city to consider tourism’s relationship to multiple facets of the community. It includes recommendations on how to mitigate the negative impacts of tourism while sustaining tourism as an industry.

In an email to The Durango Herald, Visit Durango spokeswoman Rachel Welsh said sustainable tourism requires “a nuanced understanding of the trade-offs between economic benefits and the preservation of our community and natural environment.”

She said inaction on tourism management poses a danger to the community and the quality of life of residents.

“Visit Durango sees a lot of untapped potential, particularly with the off-peak season,” she said. “In 2023, hotels throughout the county had an average of a 64.7% occupancy rate. There is room for growth with the number of visitors we can bring in during off-peak. Marketing for shoulder season is an important part of sustainable tourism and evening out the annual economic curve will help improve quality of life for locals.”

She added that Visit Durango has supplied over $400,000 to local organizations to help pay for environmental improvements and local programs.

“An example of one of the grants we awarded that specifically assists with hospitality training was a Destination Advancement Grant for Manna. They used the funds for a culinary training program,” she said.

The program was launched to help residents practice and improve their culinary skills and “empower students with the resources and connections to fill in the gaps left by the closing of the cooking programs in their district,” she said. The negative impacts of tourism aren’t only noticed by agitated residents. The effects of a flood of visitors to the area every summer wash over businesses who support and encourage tourism, too.

Antonia Clark, co-owner of Toh-Atin Gallery, on Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Antonia Clark, owner of Toh-Atin Gallery at 145 W. Ninth St. and former board member of Visit Durango, said more tourism promotion during the peak summer season isn’t warranted.

“We get a lot of complaints because people can't find a place to park,” Clark said. “We're inviting all these people to come to Durango and then we don't really have a convenient place for them to find parking.”

She said some locals might know where to find an elusive, unsought parking space, but visitors don’t have a clue, and that hurts her gallery and other businesses downtown.

Tourists crowed the sidewalks in downtown Durango in 2021. That year, voters approved an increase to the lodgers tax, 55% of which is directed to sustainable tourism activities. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

“There may be parking, you know, if you really want to search for it and you've lived here. But if you're a tourist coming into town, you don't know where to find the parking and we get a lot of complaints about that,” she said.

She said people naturally seek three key things when they visit downtown Durango: convenience, predictability and affordability.

Improved transportation and navigation signage is one suggestion highlighted in the city’s destination management master plan.

Clark said the solution could be as simple as letting people know the Durango Transit Center at 250 W. Eighth St. offers cheap daily parking passes.

Rafts full of tourists make their way down the Animas River on the Fourth of July, 2023. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Shifting tourism from peak summer months to shoulder seasons (January through May and late fall through the end of the year) is a needed strategy, she said.

The city’s destination management master plan recommends promoting shoulder seasons over peak summer seasons.

Welsh said sustainable tourism requires a “nuanced understanding of the trade-offs between economic benefits and the preservation of our community and natural environment.”

“We are actively addressing the challenges facing our community through targeted initiatives. Our approach is community-driven, ensuring that the voices of local residents shape a tourism strategy that is equitable, responsible and sustainable.”

She added that failing to protect Durango’s “cultural and natural heritage” from negative tourism impacts would wind up hurting tourism efforts all around, which would have cascading effects on the businesses and workers who themselves rely on tourism.

“There’s always going to be trade-offs,” Sluis said.

He said redirecting tourism marketing and advertising won’t necessarily affect how many visitors Durango receives yearly, but spreading visitation across nonpeak seasons will reduce immediate tourism impacts and help businesses sustain a more “even-keeled” or sustainable cash flow.

“Sustainable tourism is really important,” Clark said. “A lot of people complain that our trains are full and they can’t get into our favorite restaurants at night.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

Traffic backs up to a crawl on Main Avenue in September 2021 as a result of construction on Camino del Rio, but undeterred tourists still make their way to Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)


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