Overtourism and Aspen: The more, the wearier?
Powder pilgrims make their way to the popular Highland Bowl.
If you and I have had a drink together lately, you may have noticed I’ve been complaining about Aspen—a lot. From the introduction of the Ikon Pass to the campaign over Lift 1A to the unceremonious boot of Paradise Bakery, $120 crepes, parking rates and road and trail traffic, it feels like there’s a whole lot to gripe about.
After millions of dollars spent on marketing Aspen as a mountain paradise, Aspen is showing signs of being loved to death. Visits to the Maroon Bells have nearly doubled in the last five years; 2019 was the busiest ski season in 20 years and community grumbling has reached a noticeable new decibel. Some may say Aspen is not nearly “full,” but despite numbers, when “tourism impacts the perceived quality of life in a negative way,” that’s the definition of a phenomenon called overtourism, according to the World Tourism Organization. Simply put, Aspen is falling victim to its own success. A no-ceiling-is-the-limit plan threatens to cannibalize what made Aspen so beloved in the first place—its spirited people and wild places—and it has many people wondering, “How much more tourism takeover can Aspen take?”
Like the rest of the world’s most beautiful destinations, tourism in Aspen is growing at a steady rate, and is set to increase even more as globally middle classes continue to grow and spend money on travel, and millennials are lured, in part by social media. Travelers from China, Brazil and India are just now discovering new destinations in what were once considered remote places, like Aspen.
As a travel journalist, I have seen harbingers of what may come to Aspen when the community grows almost five times its local size during its winter and summer high seasons. In places like Amsterdam, London and Paris, I’ve also seen a lot of new paths forward to make travel sustainable for the industry and for the people and the place itself, by putting the community first.
Imagine turning all five blocks of Aspen’s downtown into a car-free, pedestrian-only, walkable city like sections of Madrid, Copenhagen and Ghent; or reshaping marketing budgets like they have in Venice, which recently enacted a campaign of “Detourism” that “promotes slow and sustainable tourism, encouraging travelers to go beyond the usual tourist sights.” And lastly, one established way to control tourism is the size of an airport. Remaining a hard-to-get-to place is a natural tactic for managing crowds.
The Aspen Chamber Resort Association, which is tasked with managing tourism efforts in Aspen, has begun to recognize what it calls “overcrowding.” Like the Leave No Trace campaign of the 1980s, in 2019, ACRA instituted a new geotag on its popular Instagram account @aspenco, “Tag Responsibly/Take the Aspen Pledge,” in an effort to not overwhelm certain landmarks. In 2020, ACRA plans to bring together locals for feedback on the direction tourism is taking in Aspen.
Perhaps this could be the beginning of a locally led tourism council found in cities like Barcelona and Cortina, where big projects, funding and growth plans are reviewed and assessed by those who would be most impacted by them.
The measure of successful tourism in Aspen can no longer be determined solely through dollars and “heads on beds”—it should also be a measure of the user experience, of its people’s happiness and of how its culture and environment are protected. In loving Aspen, we must insist tourism moving forward works with the culture, customs, traditions and lives of the people who call it home, instead of the other way around.
Photography by: Tamara Susa