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Vail’s holiday crowds aren’t going away any time soon

Aspen council member's social media rant exposes some valid concerns

Lift lines, crowded restaurants and packed hotels have long been part of busy times at mountain resorts.
Chris Dillmann | cdillmann@vaildaily.com
By the numbers
  • 30: Maximum allowed days of parking on Vail’s frontage roads. Cars park there when town parking structures are full. That limit is frequently exceeded.
  • 327: Cars parked on the frontage roads Dec. 31.
  • 171: Cars parked on the frontage roads Dec. 27.
  • 178: Cars parked on the frontage roads Dec. 14.

It’s like the great Yogi Berra once said: “Nobody goes there anymore — It’s too crowded.”

Just about every mountain resort was packed over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. In Aspen, the holiday crush led a City Council member to put his foot squarely into his social media mouth.

Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow’s frustration with holiday crowds led to a profanity-laced social media rant, which has earned Mesirow a good bit of heat. But his remarks also lead to the question: How busy can a resort be without reaching the breaking point?

“Maybe he was just being honest,” Vail Homeowners Association director Jim Lamont said. “If that’s the reality, it should be said.”

Lamont has long cautioned Vail about pursuing business growth at any cost.

“It’s all tied into how you mass market and how you differentiate different markets,” Lamont added.

While a resort’s busiest times will fill hotels, restaurants and ski slopes, Lamont said resorts with mature — or maturing — economies, need to take a close look at how they’re marketing, and to whom.

That said, Lamont noted that most Colorado ski resorts operate on federal land.

“You have to be very sensitive to the public’s right of access,” he said.

Managing the crowds

Destination marketers have for the past few years started to focus on how to prevent, or at least effectively manage, overtourism.

Sometimes those measures can border on draconian.

Vail in 2018 hosted the annual Colorado Governor’s Tourism Conference. A session during that conference focused on how some destinations handle what seems to be too much success.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has created a “do not promote” list of attractions that draw throngs of visitors. That list, distributed to hotels across the islands, is widely ignored.

Cinque Terre region in Italy once hosted as many as 5 million visitors every summer. Visitors now need a special visa to visit that area, and numbers are limited to a million guests.

Vail Town Council Member Kim Langmaid said the idea is to create and maintain “the kind of experience we all want.”

That’s going to require a good bit of balancing.

People will keep coming

Langmaid noted that tourism is a fast-growing industry around the world and that growth isn’t going to stop any time soon.

“Whether we like it or not, there are going to be more people coming,” she said.

That reality is behind Vail’s sustainable destination initiative. That includes managing crowds and, particularly in the case of popular summer trails, directing people toward alternatives.

At the state level, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has mapped every trail in the state — all 38,000 miles — in an effort to help guide people toward trails other than the ones everyone uses.

Vail Valley Partnership President and CEO Chris Romer said that providing options helps destinations manage their guests’ experience. Trailheads are a perfect example of that, he said.

In addition, destinations need to manage themselves to bring guests at non-peak times. And, while the tourism business is growing, destinations need to understand that simply “more” isn’t necessarily a good business model.
“We need to ask how we do it in a better way,” Romer said. “Your word of mouth is better when people have a better experience.”

Lamont noted that managing destination visits all comes down to quality of life for both guests and residents.

Langmaid said Vail has established solid partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service, Vail Resorts and other entities to help manage visitation and impacts.

Romer said that destinations need to continue the shift from simple promotion to guest management. He agreed that the Vail Valley has a good start on that philosophical shift.

“It’s front of mind for a lot of people … but it can always be better,” he said. “It’s not one of those things that can ever be solved, but it’s better than it was five years ago.”

But Romer added, destinations have been packed at Christmas, and over winter holiday weekends, for a long time.

“Holidays are no busier now than they were 30 years ago,” he said. While acknowledging that bed bases in resorts have grown somewhat in the time, “For the most part, we have the same number of guests that we did 30 years ago.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.


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