Tourism Tension in Instagram Age: $1 Billion in AZ Taxes, Challenges to Preservation

PHOENIX – Tourism continues to expand in Arizona, a boon for jobs, development and tax revenue, but the growth presents challenges to preserving the natural beauty drawing visitors to the state.

“It just really appears that there is a problem as far as people management,” said Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club. “But it’s a fine line because you want people to have access to this place that belongs to all of us.”

The tensions between economic driver and environmental impact are revealed in the numbers of dollars and people, both of which reach into the millions. Tourists generate jobs and tax revenue, some of which is spent on advertising to lure even more tourists and build the roads and other infrastructure needed to accommodate them. Selfie culture and social media increases such strains as littering and overuse on the most picturesque sites, and visitors forego the excitement of exploring the unfamiliar in favor of social media likes.

In 2018, for the first time in Arizona history, more than 45 million tourists generated more than $1 billion in state tax revenue, surpassing the record set the previous year by 8%, according to the Arizona Office of Tourism. These visitors help support about 200,000 jobs and provide $7.4 billion in earnings for Arizona workers.

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Flagstaff is one of the primary destinations for visitors, enticing tourists with its craft beer scene, connection to lunar missions, Route 66 nostalgia, proximity to Lowell Observatory and, above all, its status as a portal to Arizona’s natural splendors. The city’s proximity to the Grand Canyon, the nation’s largest ponderosa pine forest and the red rocks of Sedona is a large part of why visitors from across the globe spend more than $500 million each year in Flagstaff, according to a 2017-18 tourism study from the Arizona Office of Tourism.

Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, said tourism spending in Arizona reduces each resident’s tax burden by more than $1,300 per year.

“Tourism revenue is a big chunk of their government provided services,” Johnson said. To maintain their same level of service for residents “in Coconino County, it would be $3,000 more a household.”

In Flagstaff, 5 million annual visitors provide 8,000 jobs, said Meg Roederer, spokeswoman for Discover Flagstaff, the city’s tourism agency. And much of the money collected from the bed, board and beverage tax that tourists pay is spent developing infrastructure to help absorb the increased traffic.

“If you’re dining in our restaurants, if you’re staying in our hotels, you are going to be contributing to our economy,” Roederer said. “Our parks and recreation department gets a portion of it, public art … and arts and sciences education programming for students.”

Some of the money also goes back into the city’s visitor center, tour guides and media operation Roederer said.

Where’s that Tree I Saw on Instagram?

Gitlin, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, worries the promotion of natural wonders in Arizona could threaten the picturesque wilderness tourists are clambering to see for themselves.

“People are seeing more photos online and they are going to specific locations instead of wandering and distributing themselves around,” Gitlin said. “There are a few sites that tend to get a lot of impact.”

Gitlin was hesitant to give examples, lest the publicity attract further traffic to the sites, but she did mention End of the World, a popular campsite in Coconino National Forest. The often promoted site sits at the end of a 29-mile road, which Gitlin warns makes proper safety and etiquette even more of a priority.

People crave the experience being sold to them through marketing and advertising, she said. When everyone gravitates to the same locations, the heavy foot traffic may trample the local flora or lead to increased litter.

The power of marketing can pressure local infrastructure beyond its capabilities.

“Flagstaff started marketing itself as … Arizona’s winter wonderland,” Gitlin said. “And all of a sudden, all of these people came up and they wanted to play in the snow. There’s really not a lot of infrastructure to direct people to places where they can safely play in the snow. And so what they end up doing is crowding the highways, crowding the roads, and participating in unsafe activities.”

For Gitlin, this advertising problem isn’t limited to tourism boards. The rise of selfie culture and social media plays a huge part in tourists flocking to iconic wilderness sites.

“I’ve heard of hiking guides who have said their clients come in, and they’re like, ‘Where’s the tree?’” she said. “You know, the tree that everybody’s got the picture of on Instagram?”

Some people have noticed this problem and have creatively utilized social media to address it.

“A lot of people I know have recently started using ‘#somewhere,’” Gitlin said. “Which is, I think, a really nice way of inspiring people to go out and explore on their own.”

She noted that the plugged-in culture can also negate the whole point of visiting these spots for tourists, too.

“That’s not why you’re here – to get to get that one picture,” she said. “People need to visit these areas and be able to turn off their electronics and be in nature. I mean, there’s so many health effects that are being shown from being in places where you’re surrounded by natural landscapes.”

Leave No Trace

With the Museum Fire burning more than 1,800 acres in the Dry Lake Hills area north of Flagstaff and limiting access to many sites in the Coconino National Forest, Gitlin said overcrowded areas are an even greater problem.

Still, many of the strains tourists put on nature can be mitigated through education.

“It’s a tricky question, because you want to get people into nature. You want them to learn to love it,” Gitlin said. “But you also want them to love it in a way that’s going to leave it better than when they came.”

She wants to see schools teaching respect for nature at an early age; she is even more eager to see adults practice good stewardship.

Simple things like sticking to paths, “picking up your trash, taking time to look at the stars, instead of having to have a campfire every time you’re outside,” would go a long way, she said.

“If you do have a campfire, make sure that you have ample water and a shovel on you that you’re able to put it out,” she added. “Put your hand on it and make sure that it’s cool to the touch before you leave it, not leaving it burning overnight.”

Discover Flagstaff is aware of the potential problems with increased tourism and seeks to be proactive, promoting “eco-tourism,” a sustainable approach to visitation.

“As far as preservation of our area and responsible tourism, we do market a ‘stay and play responsibly’ messaging for our visitors,” Roederer said. “If you pack it in, you pack it out, you leave no trace.”

Discover Flagstaff’s website touts many of the city’s environmental accolades, from its water-saving practices to its designation as the U.S. city with the cleanest air by the American Lung Association. Flagstaff is also the first International Dark Sky City, a recognition of its efforts to curb light pollution. The website also maintains a list of eco-friendly attractions, hotels and restaurants.

Discover the New, Preserve the Old

Gitlin said government involvement has led to some positive changes in northern Arizona. She cites the rearrangement of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from a frustrating parking lot into its current configuration as one such success.

“Grand Canyon created a different system where they built a visitor center that was back off the rim,” Gitlin said. “People had to get out of their cars and walk through a plaza and walk by some beautiful monuments and landscape areas.”

This allowed the flow of tourists to be better directed, offsetting problems with overcrowding. It also had other benefits.

“I see people slowing down, taking their time, they’re in a better mood. They’re looking around, they’re enjoying themselves,” Gitlin said. “That is a really good success story. Because it’s an example of where, instead of trying to promote convenience and failing on it, they went a totally different route and promoted an experience.”

Businesses like those on Discover Flagstaff’s website also play an important role in educating visitors. Hotels touting their eco-friendly water practices remind customers to pay attention to their consumption habits, while outdoor companies teach consumers to be good stewards of the land, Gitlin said.

Improving Business, Personal Practices

Still, more could be done.

Gitlin wants to see bike companies teach trail etiquette, including staying on trails, to their customers. She also said companies could work sustainability into their business models.

“I would love to see someone start a business in Flagstaff, that rent out sleds, and you get a deposit back when you return it because we have a huge issue is broken plastic slides all over the forest,” Gitlin said.

Otherwise, Gitlin wants tourists to use the information available to protect the natural beauty that attracts them, especially if it means putting an end to her biggest pet-peeve.

“Throwing their orange peels down,” Gitlin said. “It drives me nuts.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

100 years: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates the Past, Prepares for the Future

GRAND CANYON VILLAGE – It’s a cold winter night along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and as she shuffles through the fresh snow, Abbie Smith can’t think of a better place to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

As midnight strikes, the Mesa resident is overjoyed to be staying in the park that has reached its centennial year.

She and her friend of six years, Anne Kenison of Gilbert, are just two of more than 6 million people from around the world who enjoy the canyon’s natural splendors each year.

Both of them recognize that while visiting Grand Canyon allows them a place to escape, all visitors share a responsibility to preserve the park, which faces challenges in how to manage all those people while protecting the park for future generations.

Smith and Kenison, who bonded over their love for national parks and Arizona, used the park’s 100th anniversary to launch a yearlong quest to try 100 new things at the park. So far, they’ve hiked into the canyon, eaten dinner at the Grand Canyon Lodge and braved the cold to take in the view at Yaki Point.

At each checkpoint, the women write the accomplishment on a whiteboard, snap a selfie and move on to the next adventure.

-Video by Gabrielle Olivera/Cronkite News

The Journey of a Lifetime

Smith’s love of national parks began at a young age.

“I grew up going to national parks as family vacations,” Smith said. “I have a love for natural places and national parks. I have a picture of me at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when I was really little.”

But it wasn’t until Smith and Kenison went to hear photographer Pete McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko, who traveled more than 750 miles within the Grand Canyon to raise awareness about sustainability, speak at a National Geographic live event that they decided to get to know the canyon better.

“I know it’s four hours away, but it’s still my backyard,” Smith said.

The project is more than just checking off things to do, she said.

Abbie Smith, second from the left in the front row, visited Grand Canyon National park when she was four years old with her family. “I have a love for natural places and national parks,” said Smith. (Courtesy of Abbie Smith)

“It centers me,” Smith said. “It grounds me. It makes me reflect on my life. … I’m disconnected from things that don’t matter and connected to the things that do. It’s easy to just turn things off and just tune into other senses and the canyon itself. It is an amazing place. It’s unfathomable.”

The canyon’s popularity with visitors has led to an increase in traffic over the past few decades, she said, making the push for sustainable efforts at the park more urgent.

“I think protecting the resources at the park allows our future generations to also have spaces where they can disconnect from computers, from screens and the pressures of everyday life in a beautiful place that makes them feel grounded,” Smith said.

McBride, who is passionate about park preservation, hiked the entire length of the Grand Canyon in one year to raise awareness for the challenges facing this natural treasure, which President Theodore Roosevelt called “absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

“It’s not a bucket-list item that we check off for luxury and convenience,” McBride said. “It’s a place that requires you to get away from your vehicle, embrace its silence, appreciate its night sky, be aware of its remarkable biodiversity, and not its geological history but also its archeological history.”

He said threats to the park include a proposal to build a tourist gondola across the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, ongoing uranium mining and a huge expansion of helicopter tourism at the park. There are nearly 120,000 commercial flights every year, according to 2016 data from the park.

“If it continues the way it is, we’re not going to leave the park the way it is,” McBride said. “It would set aside what has been called ‘America’s best idea’ to create these national parks and leave them for the next generation. It would be sad to change it in the name of making a profit for a small number of people.

Although Native American tribes who live in the canyon deserve economic opportunities, he said, they often do not profit from expansions at the Grand Canyon.

“People just assume it’s a protected landscape, and I believe it requires each generation to step up and voice how they feel about it,” McBride said.

100 Years of Exploration

Humans have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for thousands of years, but efforts to reserve it for the public are relatively recent.

“It was a national forest and then a national monument and then a national park in 1919,” said Paul Sutter, environmental history professor and the author of Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement, which tackles the dilemma of national parks protecting the landscape while accommodating increased tourism.

Once Americans embraced the automobile, he said, the National Park Service was able to attract large numbers of tourists.

“There was a shift in tourism from 1901 to years after World War I when a large number of automobiles started arriving, and it really changed the nature and patterns of visitation,” Sutter said. “The infrastructure of the automobile travel began to catch up around World War I.”

The National Park Service began a See America First campaign during World War I to entice people to drive out West, Sutter said.

“When most Americans thought about tourist travel, their first impulse was to go to Europe and go on a grand tour of all the famous sites,” Sutter said. “When that possibility got shut down around World War I, the See America First campaign was to increase tourism but also to create American identity through spectacular landmarks.”

-Video by Jonah Hrkal/Cronkite News

Places like the Grand Canyon are what make the U.S. stand out, he said.

“Europe may have these ancient ruins and all this history, but we have these monuments to nature, and that’s what made America a distinctive place.”

As a historian, Sutter knows every national park struggles to protect natural resources and manage visitation.

The Grand Canyon had nearly 38,000 visitors during its first year as a national park in 1919.
Today, the park welcomes more than 6 million annually.

“I personally wish we could figure out a way as a society that could better socialize the costs across the entirety of the population rather than raising the prices so much that you begin to put the experience out of reach for some people,” Sutter said. “I also know this is where they get their money and parks are in desperate need of money.

The Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park after Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to the National Park Service, and it’s suffering from wear and tear. The park has a maintenance backlog of over $300 million.

Preserving the Park

Roosevelt declared the area a national monument in 1908, but several bills to have it declared a national park failed to pass Congress.

“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world,” Roosevelt said. “I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Roosevelt, however, was out of office by the time Congress approved the Grand Canyon National Park Act. It was signed Feb. 26, 1919, by President Woodrow Wilson.

As the canyon celebrates its 100th anniversary, 2019 will be a year to honor the national park through a push for sustainability, according to centennial coordinator Vanessa Ceja.

“This is a place that’s going to stay here for thousands of years and we want it to stay for future generations,” Ceja said.

Over the next two years, the park will make the switch to zero landfill. Over the past five years, the National Park Service has put solar panels on staff housing and enforced single-stream recycling, Ceja said.

“We have one dumpster where all of our trash gets taken to so that’s increased the amount of recycling we’ve done in the park,” Ceja said. “By having less dumpsters, we’re reducing carbon emissions from trucks.”

Staff members will continue to encourage sustainable efforts, she said, but there are changes visitors can make to help preserve the canyon.

Visitors should take all their trash with them when they leave; leave all rocks and fossils; not vandalize the canyon; stay a safe distance from wildlife; and if you need to use the restroom in the inner canyon, dispose of your waste properly.

“Even though you are just a visitor, your actions here in the park have an impact,” Ceja said. “You don’t have to be a park staff to be a steward.”

Like any national park, anyone who visits has a responsibility to preserve the parks for generations to come.

“They are just places you really hope everyone can get to at one point,” Sutter said.

For Smith and Kenison, they know that a place so grand deserves multiple visits. They are continuing their quest to complete 100 adventures in and around Grand Canyon this year.

Smith and Kenison just completed over 80 tasks and their final, culminating experience will be rafting the Colorado River in June.