After a spring season shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, Moab tourism is back and by some metrics at its highest-ever level. This is good news for local tourism businesses and for local government budgets that rely on sales tax revenues, but for some residents, the rush of visitors to the Moab Valley is overwhelming.
“We’ve received a lot of concern about the degradations to quality of life associated with some of the negative consequences of growth,” noted Commission Administrator Chris Baird at the Nov. 4 Grand County Commission meeting. The group passed a resolution establishing a policy that Moab marketing should be educational and promote responsible tourism.
Moab Area Travel Council Director Elaine Gizler gave a presentation to the commission highlighting the group’s work over the past few years. Gizler demonstrated the Travel Council’s focus on sustainability, accessibility, and diversity in its advertising efforts.
“We are making every effort and every attempt to help our community,” Gizler said.
Gizler was dismayed to see comments from some citizens suggesting the Travel Council is responsible for the increase in motorized tourism.
“They think we’re advertising Jeeps and UTVs and every kind of motorized vehicle,” she said. She begged commissioners to convey to their constituents the Travel Council’s efforts to promote low-impact tourism.
She said the Travel Council is focused on attracting “quality” visitors, rather than a greater number of visitors. Marketing is reported to focus on Moab as a family destination, rather than as an “extreme” destination, and nudge visitors toward visiting during Moab’s “off-season” with the objective of spreading visitation out over the calendar to reduce crowding and to provide a more robust year-round economy.
“I’ve been at the Travel Council for 5 years; over that time, advertising has changed from mostly advertising the national parks to educating visitors before they come and while they are here,” she told commissioners.
Gizler reminded commissioners of Travel Council publications like the Moab Adventure Guide, which directs visitors towards activities and sites outside the national parks, and includes “minimum impact messaging.” The guide has icons and sidebars promoting safe recreation, Leave No Trace ethics, and local regulations, policies, and etiquette for trails and archaeological sites. It also contains information about the spread of invasive species, the fragility of biological soil crusts, and Moab’s Dark Skies initiative.
One campaign, called “Do it Like a Local,” implores visitors to treat Moab-area recreation sites with the same care and respect that local residents demonstrate. The slogan was distributed on stickers and tee shirts and the Travel Council website, DiscoverMoab.com, has a page devoted to explaining what it means to “do it like a local,” from staying on trails while running to driving slowly while operating UTVs on city streets.
The proposed policy discussed requires all promotion of tourism and recreation, as well as film production and conventions, to emphasize responsible recreation and stewardship.
“The gist of this resolution is already being fulfilled,” said Baird. “The reason for the resolution isn’t to suggest or prompt some significant change in how the Travel Council is doing things, but rather to provide assurance to both the commission and the public at large that these principles are being observed.”
State law requires that the county spend about 48% of transient room tax revenues on tourism promotion; the county policy will ensure that promotion is also educational.
Commissioner Curtis Wells was skeptical of the efficacy of educational marketing campaigns, suggesting that money could be better spent on “real,” “quantifiable” resources like emergency or law enforcement services. He worried that local business owners might see the marketing shift as harmful to their livelihoods.
“A lot of people are still really reeling from not having a spring,” Wells said, reminding commissioners of the deep economic impacts of the spring shutdown.
“With all of the uncertainty ahead, knowing what it’s like to be in business and to be in business in Moab, I hate to... send a message out there that ‘we’re redirecting our marketing away from trying to get people here to stay at your place or take your tour or eat at your restaurant,’” he said.
At the same time, Wells reported he has heard constituents express frustration and sadness at the congestion and impacts on public lands caused by increased tourism. He agreed with the messages contained in Travel Council materials, even if he doubted their impact.
“Leaving things like you found them and people being respectful of the land and conscious of how they’re impacting the land are values that are really important to me,” he said.
Commissioner Evan Clapper said he doesn’t think a shift toward educational promotion is going to slow the tide of tourism.
“I don’t think this is going to hamstring the market,” he said. “I’m very confident that the world knows about Moab; what I’m hearing from constituents is that we need to balance that growth with quality of life.”
“It doesn’t have to be off-putting,” Baird said of educational messaging, comparing the concept to alcohol advertisements, which often include a message about drinking responsibly. “I think we can get creative and come up with messages that are not off-putting.”
Citizens weighed in on both sides of the issue, with Moab Chamber of Commerce member Matthew Nieson asking that the commission table the matter until after they had met with the Moab business community to discuss ideas. Commissioner-elect Kevin Walker called in support of the resolution.
“We don’t have a magic wand that can fix all these problems, but I think a big part of the solution is going to be communicating with the people who come here,” Walker said.
The commission passed the resolution unanimously, with Commissioner Rory Paxman absent.
The Grand County Commission meets at 4 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of each month. Meetings are streamed online at the Grand County Government Youtube channel. Agendas and instructions on public comment can be found at www.grandcountyutah.net/134/County-Council.