Time to change tourism promotion

Kevin Walker

Guest columnist

The View

I’ve lived in Moab for nearly 30 years and in each of those years people have complained about the increasing numbers of tourists.  But the past five years have been different.  

The complaints are louder and more widespread, spanning the political spectrum of our community.  Democrats, Republicans, progressives, conservatives — it seems that nearly everyone feels that Moab is heading in the wrong direction, that our quality of life is suffering due to the rapid growth of tourist numbers, that new hotels are gobbling up all the land, that peace and quiet are increasingly hard to find.

A healthy, stable tourism industry is an asset to our community. An out-of-control, rapidly expanding tourism industry is a threat to our quality of life.

First, some bad news: Not only are we heading in the wrong direction, we also have our foot on the accelerator.  

Grand County spends over $3,000,000 per year on tourism promotion. Our county government is trying hard to convince even more people to visit.

But there’s also good news: We can take our foot off the accelerator any time we want to.  

Many people believe, incorrectly, that state law mandates we spend this money on promoting tourism, and that only a change in state law will allow us to use this money for a different purpose. In fact, a simple vote of the Grand County Council could redirect these funds away from “Come to Moab” messaging and toward “Stay on the Trail” messaging.  

Instead of spending over 3 million dollars per year trying to convince even more people to visit, we could spend that money educating the tourists who are already here on how to lessen their impact.

In recent years, Grand County has collected over $6 million per year in Transient Room Tax revenue. The county can spend 53 percent of the Transient Room Tax (TRT) money on tourism mitigation measures (law enforcement, search and rescue, road repair, etc.).  

The remaining 47 percent (the 3 million dollars mentioned above) is more restricted and must be spent on “establishing and promoting recreation, tourism, film production, and conventions,” state law says. Note that even the restricted 47 percent need not be spent on promoting tourism. It could instead be spent on promoting recreation.

How might we promote recreation? Here are a few ideas, and I’m sure readers can come up with even better ones.

“Stay on the Trail” messaging would help to make sure every visitor to Moab (and every Grand County resident) knows that the desert is a fragile place. The best way to prevent it from being trampled to dust is not to walk, bike or drive off the trails. This could take the form of local newspaper ads, social media campaigns, pamphlets and videos in hotels, information boards at trailheads, etc. Some of this is already happening, but we need to do much more.

Trail ambassadors could employ locals to spread the word at popular trailheads.

Translate “Stay on the Trail” information into the many languages used by our international visitors.

Another advantage to a shift away from out-of-county tourism promotion to in-county recreation promotion is that it keeps the $3 million in our local economy.  

Why send money to distant advertising agencies when we could instead give it to local entrepreneurs? I’m sure Grand County residents have many creative and excellent ideas for educating tourists about our fragile landscape. Let’s pay them to make their ideas a reality.

I want to make clear that none of this is an attack on the travel council board and staff. It has been directed to promote tourism, and it did an effective job. But now it’s time to change direction.

Given the rapid increase in tourist numbers over the past five years, it makes no sense to spend any public money at all on further tourism promotion. We should instead use the restricted TRT money to promote responsible recreation and improve visitor behavior rather than increase visitor numbers.  

The Grand County Council and travel council have both taken some small initial steps in this direction. We should complete the transition quickly and not spend any more public money on increasing tourist numbers. In the very unlikely event that visitation drops, we can always switch back to tourism promotion.

The Grand County Council has the final say on how TRT money is spent. I encourage readers to contact council members and let them know that it is time to take our foot off of the tourism accelerator.

Kevin Walker thinks Moab is still a great place to live, but he’s not sure how much longer that will last.