Tourism Balancing Act

In other American towns, that tipping point was reached long ago

By Kellyn Brown

All indications suggest this was a banner year for tourism in Northwest Montana. Glacier Park International Airport has set passenger records every month. Whitefish Mountain Resort broke its high mark for most skier visits. And Glacier National Park is on pace for its second-busiest year ever.

The Flathead economy continues to reap the benefits of increased visitation, but the pace of growth is beginning to impact the wellbeing of locals, especially in Whitefish. That city formed a Whitefish Sustainable Tourism Management Plan steering committee and recently hosted a workshop to discuss the challenges that have accompanied the tourism boom.

To be sure, most Whitefish residents (62 percent) acknowledge that the benefits of tourism outweigh the negatives, according to a survey released at the town hall. However, 80 percent of respondents described the city as overcrowded and two-thirds said it was at a “tipping point” and that more tourism would not improve their quality of life.

In other American towns, that tipping point was reached long ago. Charleston, South Carolina was named the best small city in the U.S. by the Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice contest for the ninth year in a row. It’s an honor some of its residents say they could live without.

“You’re starting to hear a lot more from the local level that, ‘let’s quit winning these awards. Let’s pump the brakes on tourism,’” the government affairs director for the city’s association of realtors told Bloomberg’s Michael Sasso. His recent story laid bare the struggle some of America’s small cities face when trying to keep pace and live with burgeoning tourism.

Charleston’s Mayor John Tecklenburg was elected in 2015 after campaigning on a pledge to temporarily halt new hotel construction and warned supporters if he wasn’t reelected this year, “every property that has the possibility of becoming a hotel will become a hotel unless we act.”

While developers rightfully say they are being singled out, ordinances aimed at slowing or better managing tourism have passed in several popular U.S. destinations. Sasso’s piece highlighted many of them.

The Asheville, North Carolina city council banned hotel construction for a year after residents voiced concerns over increased tourism, despite opposition from the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. The Moab, Utah city council did the same — visitation to the nearby Arches and Canyonlands national park increased by about 60 percent between 2010 and 2018. In Portland, Maine, city officials now require hotel developers to pay into an affordable housing fund.

Valleywide, we’re not there yet. And even during the peak summer months, there’s plenty of elbowroom if you know where to look for it. And we should celebrate when our locally owned businesses report some of their best months ever. Still, it’s worth starting the conversation, especially in Whitefish, which has strived to maintain its small-town character amid an increasingly tourist-based economy.

The hope is to strike a balance. For now, most of us are still proud when our communities and amenities are ranked among the best places to live and recreate. After all, we get to call this place home year-round. And by discussing what we want our home to look like in the future, with any luck, we can preserve what we like best about it.