Is sustainable tourism as driver of Tahoe’s $5.1B economy? – Jahanagahi

Is sustainable tourism as driver of Tahoe’s $5.1B economy?

A little more than a year ago, a virtual meeting convened Lake Tahoe’s leaders and decision-makers to discuss the future of the region. In the middle of the pandemic, Tahoe was coming to terms with the rapid growth of tourism and the fallout. Median housing prices soared beyond the reach of local employees. Trash, pollution, a hiring crisis pushing small businesses to the brink — it was all coming to a head.

Tourism in Lake Tahoe has long been the driving force of the region’s $5.1 billion economy. But in that pursuit of profit and growth — a trend that has been in place for the last decade but spiked during the pandemic — the region has been ill-equipped to deal with the aftershocks. And finally, Tahoe’s leaders were speaking honestly about the issues at hand.

“We have seen in recent years a troubling trend globally, tourism has become so focused on its own growth that it is putting itself on a path of self-destruction, where we’re valuing quantity and profit perhaps at the expense of place, quality of experience, the planet,” said Joanne Marchetta, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, at that February 2021 meeting.

What is the future of Lake Tahoe?  A new philosophy in the basin is hoping to steward the lake.

What is the future of Lake Tahoe? A new philosophy in the basin is hoping to steward the lake.

Katie Aldrich/Getty

Marchetta described the growth of tourism like a hurricane slowly building offshore that met a perfect set of conditions in the pandemic to explode into a perfect storm.

“The experience now that we all know as our backyard now became the backyard of 15 million people who are escaping the isolation of their own

four walls and who live within a day’s driving distance from Tahoe,” Marchetta said. “And so the people came, and they’re continuing to come. And I bet after COVID that they will want and seek out even more of this really, really good thing that they’ve now discovered.”

The pandemic was a preview: All the trash spilling out of dumpsters, the dog and human waste left behind along backcountry trails, the resentment building among locals who felt overwhelmed by the nonstop flow of visitors. Those issues will persist. Lake Tahoe is at an inflection point, and that February meeting was called to start a new dialogue about its future.

Now, a year later, Tahoe’s decision-makers have a plan they hope will usher in a new philosophy for the region, one that will center local communities, team local agencies to be effective stewards of the land and welcome the millions of visitors who arrive to experience their public lands in the basin. It’s called the Destination Stewardship Plan.

Traffic jam on Earth Day is just another day in the life of Tahoe

If the summer of 2020 was a surprise tsunami of visitation, the summer of 2021 felt like the apocalypse. Pandemic levels of tourism slammed into the Caldor Fire, and the Tahoe Basin was held hostage by some of the worst air quality on the planet for weeks on end.

Now, as another summer looms around the corner, the mood in Tahoe is one of trepidation. Will we endure more wildfire smoke? Will we be able to find a parking spot at our favorite trail? Will we find balance between a local quality of life and the tourism that sustains the economy? Will visitors feel welcomed on their vacation warmly, without having to drive past protest signs or feel the snub of localism?

The second-to-last Saturday in April was a surprise powder day in Lake Tahoe, a grand finale on a truly bizarre ski season. That week, a storm rolled through and dropped several feet of snow, more snow than had fallen in the Tahoe region in January, February and March, combined. The late spring storms were a godsend.

At 10 am, a stream of traffic backed up in the direction heading toward Palisades Tahoe, one of the most iconic ski resorts in Lake Tahoe. Already, the main parking lot was full with thousands of cars and parking lot attendants were swinging their arms to direct cars to the overflow lots in the back, past rows of condominiums, past the clock tower, past the Olympic Village Inn, past the employee parking lot. I pulled into one of a dozen remaining parking spots, a brisk 20-minute walk from the ski resort’s chairlifts.

Why so many cars on this late spring day? That’s when I remembered it was the Earth Day festival, of course.

Every year, a big festival in the Village at Olympic Valley celebrates the environment, convenes the local community and rallies action for climate change. And yet, the vast majority of festival attendees drive individual cars to attend. It was a striking display of the irony Tahoe experiences on a near daily basis.

Last summer, Tahoe experienced weeks of consistently poor air quality because of wildfires.

Last summer, Tahoe experienced weeks of consistently poor air quality because of wildfires.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

The future of Lake Tahoe

Days later, a regional board of elected leaders and government appointees convened at the monthly Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board meeting to discuss the ongoing challenges facing the Tahoe Basin, among them pollution, traffic, the housing crisis and an overwhelming amount of tourism.

First, the Tahoe Prosperity Center presented its findings in a regional survey and study re-examining Tahoe’s $5.1 billion economy, which is largely dependent on tourism, leading to pervasive growth of low-wage jobs that make it impossible for locally employed residents to afford the extremely high cost of living. The median wage in Tahoe is about $53,000 annually. The median home price in Lake Tahoe, as of January 2022, is $950,000. Nearly a quarter of the survey’s respondents said they are struggling to make ends meet. Given the context, most of the survey’s respondents in Tahoe are not at all optimistic about the future of the region.

The next presentation was about a plan called “Destination Stewardship.” It is a roadmap to a new buzzword in Tahoe: “sustainable tourism.” The goal is to rein in some of the aspects of life in Tahoe — the out-of-reach cost of housing, the mass departure of local employees who can no longer make ends meet, the trash and dog poop piling up on trails, the streams of traffic to Earth Day festivals — that have seemingly spun out of control.

“We know that these problems are not going away,” said Julie Regan, external affairs chief of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, in a presentation to the governing board.

Tahoe sees about 15 million visitors each year. The basin consists of more than 80% public land. “These folks are going to continue to come,” Regan said, “and we want them to come because we have public lands.”

Charles Rounds directs vehicles away from Camp Richardson's full parking lot on July 4, 2021. "We've been full since 9 am this morning.  It's pretty wild today" Rounds said.

Charles Rounds directs vehicles away from Camp Richardson’s full parking lot on July 4, 2021. “We’ve been full since 9 am this morning. It’s pretty wild today,” Rounds said.

Tom Hellauer/Special to SFGATE

So the question becomes: How does Tahoe walk the line? How does it welcome millions of visitors every year while bolstering its economy so it is not so dependent on tourism? How does Tahoe create better paying jobs that attract full-time residents? How does it build a housing environment that’s affordable and desirable, but not sprawling? And how does it tamp down the resentment against tourism, the flares of localism, the protests, the attitudes bristling against visitors, to make Tahoe welcoming and inclusive to the millions of people who arrive to enjoy their public lands?

“Destination Stewardship” is a chance to reframe the future of tourism and local life at an inflection point in Lake Tahoe.

Greg Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, is an expert in sustainable tourism and a consultant hired to shepherd this conversation with Tahoe’s leaders. At the governing board meeting, Miller spoke in favor of things like “shared vision with mutual benefits,” putting communities at the center, committing to sustainability and engaging “under-resourced communities,” including residents, second homeowners, overnight visitors and day visitors .

It’s all very conceptual, without much to hold onto. But Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, said to the governing board at April’s meeting that a plan like Destination Stewardship is essential for her organization to be in alignment with the agreed-upon future of the Lake Tahoe Basin. Already, tourism marketing groups like the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority have switched hats to become more like tourism management groups. In the pandemic, they told people not to come to Tahoe and posted travel guidelines during periods when COVID restrictions were in place. They’re avoiding photos of Tahoe’s overrun iconic locations, like Emerald Bay and Sand Harbor, choosing to promote slightly lesser-known destinations around the lake instead.

The launch for Destination Stewardship is just beginning. Conversations are scheduled in communities throughout the basin for later this month to engage local voices. The more voices heard, the better chance to plan like this has for success.

‘He works for Google and she works for Facebook’

I was putting on my ski boots in the parking lot of Palisades when I heard my name. An old friend I hadn’t seen in a while was pushing a stroller carrying his toddler up to my car. His daughter wore a baseball cap backwards, already a mountain girl. They were heading to the Earth Day Festival. He is a contractor who builds luxury homes, some in Tahoe’s exclusive gated communities.

I shouldered my skis and I followed him as he threaded his stroller through the cars in the parking lot.

“So how’s work going?” I asked. “You must be busy.”

Beaches in South Lake Tahoe saw an influx of visitors on July 4, 2021.

Beaches in South Lake Tahoe saw an influx of visitors on July 4, 2021.

Tom Hellauer/Special to SFGATE

He smiled with a look that said he was, indeed, very busy. His crew of him is half the number it used to be because hiring is so challenging in Tahoe. As a contractor, he told me he has to work for the wealthy — it’s the only way he can afford to stay in Tahoe himself.

“I can’t afford to work on any normal houses,” my friend said. “If I worked on a house for someone like us, I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Tahoe.”

We reminisced about the years not so long ago when it was possible to take on odd jobs as a contractor, or wait tables at a restaurant as I did, and still afford to pay rent while skiing 100 days a year. That time seems lost now.

“My brother and his girlfriend live here and are ski bumming,” my friend said.

“Oh really?” I said, surprised and hopeful.

“He works for Google and she works for Facebook,” he countered.

Beachgoers swim, kayak and lounge despite poor air quality conditions from wildfires at Lakeview Commons in South Lake Tahoe on Sept.  15, 2020.

Beachgoers swim, kayak and lounge despite poor air quality conditions from wildfires at Lakeview Commons in South Lake Tahoe on Sept. 15, 2020.

Tom Hellauer

It’s true the community in Tahoe is changing, and if people can continue to work remotely, that might very well help rebalance the economy, so it’s not so entirely dependent on tourism and low-wage jobs. Whether those Silicon Valley tech workers choose to stay in Tahoe full-time or choose to go back to the bay and become yet another generation of second homeowners is a big question on many minds right now.

Tahoe is loved by people who live in the basin — tech billionaires and real estate developers with lakefront mansions, yes, but also longtime ski patrollers or restaurant managers who’ve settled in smaller A-frames in the trees. And Tahoe is also loved by people who live beyond the basin — in Truckee, in Reno, in Sacramento and the Bay Area, as well as places hundreds of miles away, all over the world. It is a universal place. Locals know most of all that tourism is what allows them to make a life in a place as beautiful as this one. For visitors, Tahoe is one of the easiest places in Northern California to access public lands, mountains, fresh air and find serenity during a tumultuous time.

It’s when tourism feels so out of control, when locals feel like they’re getting pushed out and overwhelmed, when city visitors seeking an escape encounter the same urban levels of traffic, the same brash city attitudes, that resentment brews on all fronts.

That’s what Destination Stewardship seems positioned to address. At least I hope it will.

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