JACKSON — Jackson residents are fed up with tourism, that much is clear. But at least Jackson is no more fed up than other popular destinations around the globe.
That’s according to Seleni Matus, director of George Washington University’s International Institute of Tourism Studies, which is working with the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board to create the region’s first Sustainable Destination Management Plan.
Formerly the director of tourism for Belize, Matus has led several destination management initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean. She said Jackson Hole is experiencing many of the same problems linked to over-tourism as other world-class destinations. But she said that when it comes to solutions, Jackson needs its own, distinct approach.
At a public meeting May 31 at the Cloudveil Hotel, Matus shared the results of a resident tourism sentiment survey that garnered almost 5,000 responses.
Among the findings: Tourism is considered important to the local economy, but the majority of residents (53 percent) do not feel there are non-economic benefits of tourism. Only 26% of residents said tourism’s benefits outweigh its drawbacks. Chief among the identified drawbacks are traffic, overcrowding, and the environmental impact of overcrowding.
Residents had two primary suggestions for how to right the ship: stop advertising Jackson Hole and limit the number of visitors. As a sign of the workforce housing crisis, they also called for limits on hotel development and stricter short-term rental regulations.
Cory Carlson, Travel and Tourism Board (TTB) chair, said the survey results support the “direction and strategy” his board is pursuing.
The TTB provided the News&Guide a copy of the survey results, but the volunteer board has not posted them publicly.
At the public planning meeting May 31, locals awkwardly took photos of the powerpoint and one person asked why the results wouldn’t be available online.
TTB Communications Director Sue Muncaster said the board’s current website, VisitJacksonHole.com, cannot support PDF documents. And at the board’s June 9 meeting, members tried to award a minimum of $150,000 to a former board member to build a new website. That bid faced fierce opposition from members of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.
Matus said the survey results will be one part of the final destination management plan when they are published later this year. But that document will also include feedback from businesses that directly benefit from tourism. Residents are only one stakeholder group.
During the project’s research phase, the TTB consultants met with other tourism stakeholders including elected officials, public land managers, business owners and civic leaders in Jackson.
The findings from those meetings have not yet been published.
The only published recommendation is for a “more comprehensive, representative, and holistic destination-level governance structure that better monitors, coordinates, and communicates best practices as they relate to visitor management, resource protection, and resident quality of life.”
That solution seems to address a question many residents have: Why is the Travel and Tourism Board, which previously led the promotion of Jackson Hole, the agency leading efforts to rein in visitation?
Another question is this: Can they?
The volunteer board is legally required to fund the promotion of Jackson Hole with 60 percent of a 2-percent countywide lodging tax. Last fiscal year, that meant an operating budget of $4,130,812, according to the board’s annual report.
State law recently expanded the scope of promotional funding to allow the TTB to back tourist education and “other tourism-related initiatives,” but it still doesn’t allow spending on capital construction or infrastructure improvements.
In fiscal year 2020, Teton County welcomed 1.5 million overnight visitors. Travelers spent $1.1 billion, which generated $55.2 million in state and local tax receipts.
If not for the taxes generated by the travel and tourism industry, the average household in Teton County would have paid $5,771 more in taxes for existing government services.
Most residents (61 percent) said in the survey they would be willing to pay more taxes for local public services if it means having fewer visitors.
At the first public planning meeting in March, one resident asked TTB representatives why the board didn’t just stop promoting Jackson Hole outright.
Carlson said that would require changing the board’s bylaws, which would be a “big process,” requiring sign off from town, county and possibly state-level officials. He also said the board clarified its bylaws back in 2020 to allow for the sustainable destination planning process.
“We just went through, about a year and a half ago, a clarification on the bylaws that govern our ability to fund so that we could do things like we’re doing tonight,” he said, noting more changes could be possible if there was a “strong appetite” for them.
The meeting in May seemed to demonstrate that appetite, at least locally.
“Why aren’t we addressing why we’re spending tens of millions of dollars a year to promote tourism?” asked Wilson resident Alan Henderson, receiving the night’s only round of applause.
Henderson reiterated that point in a June 8 Letter to the Editor in this paper, writing, “We continue to spend tens of millions on tourism promotion for the benefit of businesses that are so busy they can’t even staff themselves, while the community bears the impact.”
As for solutions, Henderson recommended not collecting a lodging tax — or, he said, “we could spend our 2 percent promoting Chugwater and southeast Wyoming instead of Teton County.”
Under a new law passed in 2020 that took effect in 2021, an additional 3-percent tax on lodging returns to the state for statewide tourism promotion.
A bit of a key distinction: Residents seem to dislike tourism, as opposed to individual tourists.
Only 19 percent of survey respondents were concerned by tourist misbehavior. Twice as many (38 percent) said sites were simply too crowded. And only 2-percent suggested educating visitors as a viable solution.
That’s a challenge to the current approach.
The Wyoming State Office of Tourism has led WY Responsibly campaigns the past two summers, similar to #TagResponsibly efforts, to educate visitors on best practices. Jackson’s Travel and Tourism site encourages tourists to leave no trace and stay away from wildlife. It also recommends using public transportation and respecting wildlife closure areas.
This year, the board will support an ambassador program and Recreate Responsibly campaign on the national forest led by the Friends of the Bridger-Teton with a $1 million grant.
Travel and Tourism’s contracted partners requested an additional $81,651 this month on top of their $150,000 original budget to complete additional research.
George Washington was originally expecting about 1,200 survey responses and requested $21,802 to pore through all the additional responses.
The institute also requested $20,000 to include marginalized groups — including high school students — in the research stage.