Smart Destinations Use Data to Tackle the Roads Most Traveled

“Overtourism” is the term the media has given to places whose immense popularity has begun to degrade the visitor and resident experience. Whether it’s the chance to see an Instagrammable view, taste dishes cooked by an award-winning chef, or make lifelong memories, there’s something about these places that has captured the imagination of the masses, and they are showing up.

And while social media overflows with carefully curated, conveniently cropped snapshots, it’s much harder for the people who live in these places to ignore the pressures of crowded trails, stalled traffic, and elusive parking — not to mention indirect effects like increased cost of living that hits hospitality workers especially hard.

The pressures generated by the growth of these highly-desirable places present an industry-wide concern. We see it frequently in smaller destinations that serve as gateways to adjacent national parks or popular recreation areas, but it can — and does — happen anywhere.

Addressing the roads most traveled can feel difficult and perhaps even out of our control. But this is where data plays a valuable role in helping to bring the right people together to develop positive solutions that create a more resilient destination and industry.  

Seeking a change of place

I strongly believe that tourism is a force for good in our communities. This idea is central to Zartico’s mission, and it’s been a part of my involvement in the industry ever since my husband and I purchased and repurposed an aging Adirondack inn more than a decade ago.

We renovated the historic hotel into an eco-friendly property — sourcing recycled tiles for our renovations, using lake water for the gardens, installing green roofs, recycling amenities as part of Clean Our World, and ultimately achieving Audubon International’s Platinum Eco-rating.

I joined the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism DMO in Lake Placid, New York, and continued following the path of placemaking and change-making, which led me to Zartico this past fall.

The data that Zartico provides our partners opens the door to a new kind of change-making. Issues like overtourism raise complex questions for a destination, and no single agency or entity has all of the answers. It requires multiple stakeholders to work together, and each participant brings their own perceptions, beliefs, and ideas to the table.

Data offers a tool to organize these perspectives around a shared, neutral understanding of the challenge at hand — allowing community leaders to make changes that better steward the places in their care.

Bringing it home: The Cottonwood canyons

Zartico has worked with multiple destinations to dig into these kinds of complex issues, and one recent project from my new hometown provides an excellent example.

For more than 20 years, I have traveled to the Salt Lake City area to ski. Over the years, I’ve seen all of the beneficial changes you would expect from a growing city. There are more restaurants, cultural offerings, and amenities — and a lot more people wanting to enjoy the great outdoors, both visitors and residents.

In winter, outdoor enthusiasts head to the Cottonwood canyons to ski at four of Utah’s top resorts. These mountains boast some of the best terrain most will ever encounter, regularly see the highest snow totals, and are wildly popular — but they are only accessible by way of two picturesque-yet-narrow two-lane highways. This sort of access is what great mountains are made of, untouched wilderness free of excess pavement. 

But in peak seasons, congestion can slow the flow of traffic on weekends, especially early in the morning, during special events, or when fresh snowfalls attract skiers in search of endless powder runs. Following the line of glowing red taillights that snake their way up the canyon, it can take over an hour to drive less than four miles. It’s a frustrating experience for visitors and residents alike.

This winter, our partners at Visit Salt Lake proactively set their sights on solutions for their residents and stakeholders, and turned to the data as part of their process. 

Here is what we found in our analysis of geolocation data from 57,000 devices:

  • Despite a perception that traffic in the Cottonwood canyons was caused by an influx of tourists, the data showed that over 70% of devices observed in the canyons throughout the year are residents — with more than 50% of these residents traveling less than 15 miles.
  • The share of canyon usage by residents has grown about 20% since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Many destinations are seeing similar patterns as work-from-anywhere opportunities allow people to move to places where they can pursue their hobbies.

Leveraging data neutralized the perception of the problem and identified residents as the heaviest users of the canyons, enabling multiple partners to come to the table for resident-focused solutions. In this case, Visit Salt Lake teamed up with Salt Lake County, Utah Transit Authority, the four Cottonwood resorts, and Snow Country Limousine to launch and fund a shuttle program with stops conveniently located within the 15 mile radius. The group is also working to promote carpooling and other resident-facing strategies, such as ride share apps, with the goal of helping locals enjoy these majestic mountains once again. 

Visit Salt Lake is already looking ahead, knowing that resident growth and increased interest in Utah’s natural beauty will continue fueling these trends. Taking a proactive stance allows this team to take action that benefits the entire community, whether it’s sharing data with the city to inform trail development or creating marketing campaigns to target the visitors that will bring the greatest positive impact.

Zartico’s POV: 5 things we’ve learned

  1. Overtourism is reaching a pivotal decision-making moment for our industry. How we respond will define the future of destination organizations and the communities we serve. 
  2. Small actions are better than no action. No one entity can face these challenges alone, and it’s up to destination organizations to claim their seat at the table and contribute their unique insights to tackle difficult challenges.
  3. Data can play a vital role in helping bring people together to develop positive, locally generated solutions. By leveraging the right insights, destination leaders can also identify meaningful proactive strategies.
  4. As in many cases of destination stewardship, the positive solutions created by the Salt Lake community will have cascading effects. Fewer vehicles in the canyons will reduce carbon emissions and ecosystem effects, and the improved traffic experience will encourage visitors — who make up one-third of spending in the destination — to keep coming back.
  5. Using data to learn from the past, we have the ability to build our own future, shaping the way both visitors and residents experience our destinations and encouraging people to take the path less traveled. In doing this work, we can restore the experience of our most-visited locations — and share the indescribable feeling that comes from having a champagne powder trail all to yourself.    

Look for Zartico at the 2023 Mountain Travel Symposium in Banff and Lake Louise, Canada. We’ll be sharing more about how to use visitor data to improve resident quality of life in mountain destinations. Come say hello!


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