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For the week of June 14 through June 20, 2000

Big Bang theory of tourism is wrong

For most people, life begins in the Wood River Valley the day they pull in.

To smog-clouded eyes escaping from big city freeways, the valley looks like heaven. The sky is blue, the water clean, the pace unhurried. Everything seems to flow at the pace of the Big Wood River’s casual August current. Good music and theater, nice art galleries, incredible recreation and great restaurants—it seems like magic.

Everyone who finds their way here at one time or another attributes the valley and all it contains to great good fortune. That’s wrong. It’s more than random fortune.

The experience to be found here is the result of much planning, public investment, business investment and marketing.

It’s easy to take it for granted. It’s easy to assume that all of the things to be enjoyed here sprang fully formed from nothing—a sort of Big Bang Theory of resort development.

It’s easy to assume the economy is a kind of perpetual motion machine that never requires a push for it to keep moving. It’s easy to assume that the tourist economy is the enemy of all that is good here.

It’s easy to want to "protect" what’s here, to freeze it in time by cutting off local-option tax funding for marketing.

It’s easy to think that ignoring the dearth of affordable housing and letting the number of hotel beds in the valley shrink are good things.

The Big Bang theorists hold that marketing is unnecessary—that the valley’s economy, like the universe, will remain healthy and in place with no help at all.

They say there’s no need to worry about the shrinking number of hotel beds. There’s no need for concern about the shrinking number of skiers each winter. There’s no need to care about whether the area has good air service. According to the theory, businesses will stay healthy, and all will be well no matter what.

Not necessarily.

The local economy is much more fragile than it looks. July and August and Christmas are busy times but two to three good months don’t make a healthy economy. And, with the exception of a few businesses that do business outside the valley, most downtown businesses derive the bulk of their revenue from visitors.

Just as important, all other sectors of the local economy depend on the health of the valley’s base industry. Part-time residents are here for more than the scenery. Businesses that do not depend on tourism are here for the lifestyle supported by tourism, not because it is easy or even more profitable to be here.

So, why should we market the area, especially for the winter? Because ending marketing could stop the tourism universe. It might be pleasant for awhile. It might even seem safe—until the whole thing implodes and leaves a black hole where a nice resort area once existed.


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