Each year the Lake Tahoe Basin sees about 50 million vehicle trips into, out of, and within its mountainous borders, according to the Tahoe Transportation District. For reference, 50 million is also the projected population of the state of California by 2050 — what will our paradise look like then?
It’s a near impossible projection to make, but the stakeholders in that future are comprised of the people who make up those 50 million trips. And of that statistic, the TTD study found that 75% are accounted for by visitors to the area. Tourism is our region’s driving force. It made up 62% of Lake Tahoe’s economy in 2015, and visitors are the bulk of its population during peak seasons. It is what holds the region up, but it comes at a cost: According to the TTD over 70% of the particulates impacting Tahoe’s lake clarity come from the current transportation system; in last year’s post-Fourth of July lake cleanup event, volunteers found 18,235 pieces of single use plastic and 8,061 cigarette butts on five of Tahoe’s beaches; and the entire region is struggling with a housing crisis exacerbated by vacation homes, short-term rentals, and a lower-paying service industry job market. There is a way to mitigate some of these negative effects, however, and it’s gaining steam across the world under the phrase “sustainable tourism.”
As defined by the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism is “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.” This three-pronged approach to sustainability is not a new concept — it has existed for years in the business world under the concept of “the triple bottom line.”
“It’s not just the environmental impact,” said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council. “It’s also the community and the social impact, and thinking about how you make sure the economic impact benefit is captured in the community.”
The SBC is an advocacy group for Sierra Nevada businesses with a mission based around the same idea of a triple bottom line (see Real Battle on Climate Change in the Region). Frisch and his team have already kicked off a couple of projects they believe will boost sustainable tourism in the region, and they hope more will follow.
The environment is not the totality of sustainable tourism, but it is a good starting point. It’s the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains, after all, that attract visitors in such high numbers. The SBC and its partners have launched two online tourism guides specifically oriented toward helping visitors plan the most enjoyable, and least environmentally impactful, itinerary possible in the region.
The first is the Lake Tahoe Water Trail, which is targeted toward nonmotorized paddling around Lake Tahoe. Frisch says this is one of the fastest growing segments of the outdoor community, and the project provides a website (laketahoewatertrail.org), mobile app, and waterproof map, all with resources on how to paddle the lake using the best practices. These include safety guidelines, being mindful of sensitive species, respecting private property, Leave No Trace principles, and tips on how to avoid aquatic invasive species.
This last mention about invasives is one that Frisch believes is especially important considering the implications of climate change and a warming lake.
“If there’s one activity people can take to make sure that they’re acting sustainably in these mountain lakes: Wash your damn boat,” Frisch said. “Kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, if they go from a low elevation to a high elevation [lake], then they can easily be transmitters of an invasive species and that’s a really big deal.”
The second resource for visitors is the Sierra Nevada Geotourism website (sierranevadageotourism.org), which is a collaboration between the SBC, National Geographic, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and other organizations. The website is a mapping tool that can help a traveler plan an entire travel itinerary around their activity of choice, from mountain biking to hiking to sunbathing, in a way that directs you to locally owned assets that capture the character of the region.
And while you’re on your adventures, perhaps the easiest yet most visibly impactful way to give back to the places you’re experiencing is to pack out what you pack in.
“The biggest thing I would say, environmentally-wise, is pick up after yourself,” said Liz Bowling, communications director for the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.
Remember those 8,061 cigarette butts? “We see so much trash left over from beach days and people having fun, which we, of course, want them to have the best experience possible, but cleaning up after yourself is a huge, huge, initiative.”
“Another part of sustainable tourism is looking at communities as a cultural resource and being conscious of how much tourism is altering the character of the community,” Frisch said, adding that locals and visitors alike need to look at “tourism as a local resource rather than an exploitative industry, which it can be in some ways.”
Part of this starts with engaging in activities like those referenced in the geotourism and water trails websites, but there are many ways to give back to the Tahoe/Truckee community and support its culture. It can start as simply as polite interactions. Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation (TTCF) CEO Stacy Caldwell lists a few easy methods of bettering the area as being patient with your servers when out and about, and being mindful of noise if staying at a vacation rental in a neighborhood.
Another concrete step you can take is to make a habit of only staying at short-term rentals that are transparent about paying a transient occupancy tax (TOT), as this money is used to keep up with the impact of tourism on the region.
Or if you want to do more but aren’t sure how, the TTCF has a resource to make philanthropy easy. The region has multitudes of nonprofits, all completing important work, so deciding where to direct your generosity can be daunting at times. Caldwell says this is exactly why the foundation started its Give Back Tahoe campaign in 2014. The campaign is a seasonal donation push through the month of December, and although the push is still months away, givebacktahoe.org can also be used to scope out volunteer and donation opportunities and research local nonprofits.
“We like to say, ‘on your way back, give back,’” Caldwell said, adding that the foundation chooses recipients for an annual grant cycle that are determined to be in the most need at the time, making it, “a great way [to give] if you don’t know nonprofits in the region.”
It may not be tax deductible, but one of the best ways to support the people of the Truckee/Tahoe community is through shopping local. An aggregation of nine studies by economic analysis firm Civic Economics found that 48% of spending at local, independent businesses was recirculated into the community, versus the 13.6% spent at chain retailers. Bowling adds that for North Lake Tahoe specifically, visitor spending generates 60% of employment and 51% of earnings.
In a mountain town with profound seasonal visitor fluctuation, the timing of this spending is sometimes just as key as where it’s spent. A dollar goes a lot further for paying a local’s rent in the fall and spring shoulder season months.
“Our businesses, more than ever, feel the impacts of peak seasons and shoulder seasons,” Bowling said. “Regardless of whether someone’s here in the off season or the high season, to shop local and support local businesses is the best way to give back to our economic vitality.”
Bowling says that visiting and spending locally in the shoulder season months is not only better for the health of the community, but it has its own benefits for the visitor as well. If you’ve never experienced Tahoe traffic during the month of April versus July, you really should give it a shot. April also happens to be the month you can almost always decide whether you want to go skiing or hang out at the beach.
Unfortunately, there is little information available on the mountain town effects of shopping local. When I consulted Google, with the search, “shop local data resort towns,” the first item on the list was a Forbes article titled, America’s Top 5 Coolest Towns To Buy A Vacation Home.
“To be honest, not enough focus in sustainable tourism has gone into local economic development and it really needs to start focusing more on that,” Frisch said. He added that the missing link is that technical assistance needs to be given to businesses in the outdoor recreation sector to help them utilize the growing tourism sector, and to help educate that sector on best practices.