As a former member of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, John Frechette admits he often walks the party line when talking tourism.
But these days, the owner of the Gaslight Alley store Made is echoing the result of a survey last year that shows 80% of Jackson residents feel the city is attracting enough tourists and needs to focus more on handling the tourism it already has.
“I do feel like at this point, we are still allocating so much of the (tourism) dollar to advertising,” he said. “I know that we’re not marketing the prime seasons like summer and winter, but it’s hard to show someone a newspaper ad, you know, in September or October, and not have them come in winter, too.
“It’s just hard to target that market specifically in the off-season.”
Attracting Tourists Not The Problem
Frechette said residents and tourists are finding it more and more difficult to find parking spaces downtown, and the effects of over-tourism are readily apparent everywhere visitors go.
“There are times where, you’re like, you know, I walk down the street and pick up trash,” he said. “And I know it’s not because they’re not trying. But, like, trash cans are overflowing because there’s 1,000 people who deposited a coffee cup that day, you know.”
Frecehette said civic infrastructure to handle Jackson’s needs more support.
“The word is out about Jackson,” he said. “So, I don’t know that we need to be spending so much money on advertising to get people excited.”
Want Flexibility In Spending
Frechette, like many other Jackson residents and business owners, is worried about keeping the character of the Jackson community and ensuring it doesn’t become a victim of its own success.
Jackson hosted 1.5 million overnight visitors in 2020, according to the Jackson Tourism Board’s most recent annual report, who spent $1.1 billion.
In turn, that generated nearly $55.2 million in state and local tax receipts.
But the strain of handling so many visitors in a community of about 11,000 takes a toll, Frechette said.
He believes many visitors could see the strain in their interactions with frontline workers, who bore the brunt of all that COVID-19 pandemic-inspired popularity.
10 Years Of Tourism Growth At Once
During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials encouraged people to take advantage of the great outdoors, where social distancing is so much easier and people are much less likely to catch respiratory illnesses.
That mantra brought record tourism to Jackson, outgoing Jackson Tourism Board Executive Director Kathryn Brackenridge told Cowboy State Daily.
“We just saw an unbelievable amount of growth,” she said. “It’s something like — this is unofficial. This is more anecdotal, but it was almost 10 years of growth, in terms of demand, in a two-year time frame.”
Tourism is Jackson’s lifeblood, supporting everything from schools to fire and police departments.
The effect of the tourism surge on Jackson’s infrastructure and the grumpy attitudes it generated galvanized city leaders into looking more closely at the sustainability of their tourism.
“Everyone wanted to be outside,” Brackenridge recalled. “And it made the Tetons and the state overall increasingly attractive to visitors.”
Keeping it that way in the face of so much popularity is the challenge.
The ecosystem, for one, is fragile, Brackenridge said.
“We are defined by some of the limitations of the public lands that surround this destination,” she said. “We call it, you know, Jackson Hole, but it’s also very much the obligation to welcome any and all who would like to visit, because it’s America’s public lands and, ultimately, you have to work in good coordination in concert with our land managers.”
A key component of the comprehensive plan for sustainable tourism examines shared allegiances – with stakeholders ranging from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service to business owners – in maintaining the health of the Greater Yellowstone’s ecosystem.
Greater flexibility in how money for tourism promotion is spent, meanwhile, recently approved by the Wyoming Legislature, is allowing Jackson to spend more of its tourism and lodging dollars on educating tourists in preserving the wildness they claim to love.
“I mean, we see what happens when people try to mess with wildlife and disrupt them,” she said. “Or decide to go swimming in a hot pot in Yellowstone.”
More Public Infrastructure
Freschette, meanwhile, is more focused on infrastructure.
“I just think we need to focus some of the money on things like adding more public restrooms or more signage or keeping streets clean, that kind of thing,” he said.
He also wants to make sure Jackson doesn’t lose the character that he’s grown to know and love over the last 20 years.
“(Visitors) love our charm,” he said. “But post-COVID we were so busy that it was like unsustainable.
“Our staff was exhausted. They were fighting over masks, and there was just, like, a million other things. It got so, like, tiring that you could see it.”
Cashiers all over town were fed up and grumpy, Freschette said. It was disturbingly similar to the stereotype of other famous tourist towns where people are visibly annoyed with foreign tourists and all their pesky questions.
“I actually think part of what makes Jackson so cool is that we see people from all over the world on a given day,” he said. “You could hear, like, four different languages, and that just doesn’t happen in a lot of Wyoming or a lot of the American West.”
Gathering It All Together
Nearly 5,000 residents participated in Jackson’s tourism sentiment survey, Brackenridge said, and community engagement throughout the process of developing a tourism sustainability plan has been phenomenal.
Residents talked about the uptick in traffic, stress and strain on law enforcement and other community resources, and aired their opinions on the best approach when there are 66,000 visitors passing through Jackson’s Town Square at the height of summer.
“Not necessarily to say, ‘OK, well, we can’t have 66,000 people coming through here,’” Brackenridge said.
Instead, it was framed as how can the community rise to the occasion.
“How can we speak to each other better so that traffic flows more easily and you’re less likely to have congestion and traffic accidents and incidents?” Brackenridge said. “It just comes down to more fluid operations as much as anything, and gathering information and making informed decisions.”
The results of the tourism sustainability plan were presented to board members a couple of weeks ago, Brackenridge said.
Implementation could begin as early as the end of the month, while other things will take more time.
“One of the primary goals will be to create a common understanding of, first and foremost, a shared responsibility among residents, businesses and visitors,” she said. “It’s really a holistic approach.”
Increased stability in tourism, improving destination transit and mobility, enhancing destination resilience, the health of the ecosystem and monitoring the impact of tourism on people and places are all elements of the plan.
But a key element that will require all the community working together, Brackenridge said, is workforce recruitment and retention. A lack of affordable housing is a crucial, but complex, element of that.
“Getting people to be able to come live in the Tetons and work and survive there and help meet the continued demands of tourism,” she said. “This is where the community really needs to come together to help fill in the gaps of some of the goals from the plan.”