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Our View: More tourism?

Business growth must look beyond tourism industry

Since beginning our FOCUS 2021 series in January, we’ve published numerous editorials addressing the four topical areas we’ve designated as our special focus for this year: Beyond Our Means, about homelessness and affordable housing; Healing the Rift, about trying to get beyond the terrible polarization that plagues our country; Common Grounds, about environmental and climate change issues; and Doing Business Better, about how to develop a sustainable economy for our town and region.

It’s the latter topic that has proved most difficult to pin down. Today, we’re going to take on a sacred cow as we redouble our efforts to discuss this intractable issue of creating a sustainable economy.

Yep, we’re talking about tourism. The Herald Editorial Board supported the lodgers tax increase that passed in the recent city election. But many of our readers questioned how the extra money will be spent. About 55% of it – the largest percentage – is going to tourism marketing for “sustainable tourism,” which remains a murky concept. Generally, the approach seems to be to attract tourists with more money to spend and get them here in the shoulder seasons, instead of appealing to additional, random tourists.

We’re not sure that approach will be successful, unless local organizations can come up with some shoulder-season events that will draw a new crowd of visitors. (We can’t get those bike events happening at Durango Mesa Park fast enough!)

Yet in any case, tourism is not the only possible answer for developing Durango’s economic future, for a lot of reasons. (Although some people believe it is, we concede.)

Readers who wrote to the Herald during the run-up to the election supported the increased lodging tax, but many were not happy about spending it on increased tourism. They didn’t want their town overrun with more and more people; last year’s influx was overwhelming and the cost to our fragile ecosystem was great.

But perhaps more important is the fact that tourism does not support Durango as much as many people believe it does. City leaders are aware that while regional tourists stay in hotels here, they may spend the bulk of their vacation money elsewhere in the area – for example, on riding the train and while it stops in Silverton; on entry fees, tours, shopping and dining at Mesa Verde National Park; and at Purgatory, while skiing, riding the roller coaster, water sliding and more, depending on the season. None of those activities pays sales taxes to the city of Durango to support the services that tourists, like residents, use.

Small businesses, especially downtown, rely on tourism as their economic mainstay, and provide many jobs. But a lot of jobs related to the tourism industry are by necessity low-paying hospitality service positions, and many are seasonal. And while working as a server and making tips is a perfectly good job for young people, it’s not something you can earn enough to raise a family on, nor find it easy to do when you’re 70. What we hear consistently from longtime residents is deep sadness and frustration because their children and grandchildren cannot earn salaries that will allow them to live and raise their families here.

More tourists – no matter when they come and how much money they spend – can’t be the only answer to developing a sustainable economy. We’re not saying we should discourage tourism. There are a lot of positive aspects to tourism and the business that tourists generate. And let’s face it: Tourists are coming no matter what we do. Yet tourism is just a pie-slice of our economy – a big one, granted – but not the single solution if the goal is to build a stable economy populated with healthy, growing businesses and good-paying jobs for Durangoans.

We need to be looking beyond tourism for more slices of that pie. More on that to come in future editorials.

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