What happens when a travel destination becomes so popular and so beloved by everybody that it suddenly seems as if it’s loved to death?
Overcrowded sights, overflowing parking lots, traffic jams, trashed and damaged grounds. These are all symptoms of a destination being loved to death. In episode 2 of RootsRated Labs, we explore potential causes and fixes to these problems with special guest Linea Gagliano from Travel Oregon. We'll also hear from adventure traveller Matt McLelland and travel marketing expert John Deleva.
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Hosts: Mark McKnight and Ana Connery
Producer: BJ Smith
Resources and related reading:
"There are No ‘Secret Spots," RootsRated
"Zion National Park Might Limit Visitors," Adventure Journal
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Music for this episode by Podington Bear
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Matt: Last year for spring break, we flew into Las Vegas, dropped down to Moab and then worked our way through Arches and Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef and Canyonlands and Zion National Parks, of course. Now, the beauty of the time of year that we went, which was October, is we really didn't experience a whole lot of crowds... except for Arches. Arches, the day we arrived, was so crowded we just drove right past and went to our friend's house.
Ana: What happens when a place becomes so popular and so beloved by everybody that it suddenly seems as if it's loved to death?
Mark: Welcome to RootsRated Labs.
Ana: Where we explore the intersection of travel and the outdoors. I'm Ana Connery.
Mark: And I'm Mark McKnight. We just heard from Matt McLelland.
Matt: My name is Matt McLelland. I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Mark: He's out there getting it done. He's traveling quite a bit with his family. He's a hang glider...
Matt:...White water kayaker.
Mark: A mountain biker.
Matt: We love to trail run, camp...
Mark: He's just one of these guys that is always exploring and wants to get out and see new things. He was one of our early readers at rootsrated.com, and he was one of the people that responded to the request that we had out for our readers, where you were asking about experience in these areas that have been "loved to death."
He and his wife and his son have been to a number of national parks this year, in part because this is the Centennial. They've been on the front lines this year, and they've been to a lot of these places that have had quite a lot of visitations. It was really interesting to talk to him and to hear what his experience was out there.
Ana: As a travel writer and editor for so many years, I can tell you that anytime a writer is out on assignment somewhere, or even just out for fun on their own, and they come across something special or unique, especially if it's in a national park, a state park or some other kind of public land, you hesitate for a minute to even want to share it with your readers. Because you hear all the time from businesses and locals: "Yes, this place is a gem, but please don't tell anybody, because then it'll be packed and the traffic will be crazy and everything will get really expensive and the place will get trashed."
There's this idea that if you tell people about a special place, "Wow, they might come," and there are some repercussions to that. So I think it's a really interesting subject, and I think it's something that a lot of destinations and parks and attractions struggle with when it comes to, you know, the boundaries of marketing. How far do you go before you've positioned your place to be loved to death?
Mark: Here at RootsRated, we hear a lot of feedback from our readers, as you can probably imagine. We're in an interesting space where we're writing about outdoor adventure, we're writing about fun things, new places to go visit. And so we get a lot of feedback from people that say, "I went to this place because of your recommendation," or "I used your tool to plan my trip and I found all these cool things to do and I had a great time." We get photos that people send to us. "Here's the place that I went to. It's amazing."
Most of what we get is positive. But sometimes we have negative feedback. Most of the negative feedback is along kind of two different lines. One is, "The place you wrote about is super crowded now, and it's your fault. You're ruining the outdoors. Stop talking about my favorite place." And then we get another one that's kind of, "You guys are idiots because if you really knew the best places, you would have gone to these other places. But I'm glad you don't know about them because now you don't get to ruin them."
And both of them are kind of coming from that same vein... there's a perception that the media and that social media and Instagram, all of these things are damaging the places by kind of getting the word out or letting out a secret.
Ana: It's true, there's all these places that are so special to people, that they almost want to guard them and protect them for themselves or at least from the craziness of overpopulation and all of the things that accompany that. And so it's sort of like a double-edged sword. We want people to come, we want people to experience these things and these places, but the repercussions of that are often something that places are ill prepared to deal with. And so, how do they know where to draw the line?
Mark: We have a really strong opinion about it at RootsRated. In fact, we've written about it, and we published an article about secret spots really recently. There's a couple of points here, and I'll just run through them because I think it's worth taking the time to do it.
Number one, public land is for the public. If you're talking about a secret spot that is part of a national park, part of a national forest, part of a wilderness area or anything like that, guess what? It's not a secret. It's public land. We all paid for it. Public land is for everyone.
Number two, we need more information about outdoor recreation and we need this information to be more accessible, not less accessible. We have a number of issues that we are fighting in this country, from population health issues to mental health issues. We have a strong feeling that people need to unplug and get out from behind the screens periodically and go back out into nature. We feel like the world is a better place when people can go out and spend some time in nature and doing something active.
And so, providing that information is actually really helpful. We also think that if you have information about all of the different things that you can do outdoors, that variety of information and the variety of places that you could go is actually gonna help reduce some of that traffic that would otherwise be concentrated on the few places that people do know about.
Third point here, you don't have an exclusive right to the outdoors. There is nothing that makes you special, where you deserve to have this amazing experience and other people don't.
A fourth point, if you want solitude, be willing to work for it. A lot of these parks, and Matt McLelland speaks to this, if you just hike a mile, you're gonna get away from most of the people that have driven in, parked and came to gawk at something.
Matt: A couple of summers ago we were in Yosemite. You really couldn't move around in the traditional areas, like in Curry Village, the Tent Village, some of the major attraction. But you know, Mark, all you really have to do is get 50 yards off a main trail and you've got the whole park to yourself. You know what I mean? You don't have to get very far to enjoy that.
Towards the end of that trip, we ended up back in San Francisco on Mount Tamalpais and went to the Muir Woods Forest, which is probably one of the most visited parks right there on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. You have to almost drive around for an hour to find a parking spot. When you walk through the redwoods, you're in there and there's just tons of people, and of course, it's designed to be that way. But again, get 50 yards off one of the trails and you've got the whole place to yourself.
Mark: One stat that we found is that year to date, and this is...we're in 2016, at the end of 2016 right now. Grand Canyon National Park has reported almost five million visitors, but there are only 244,000 overnight backcountry permits. So if you think about that, if you spend one night in the backcountry and you get a permit to do that, you're gonna leave literally 95% of your fellow visitors behind. If you really do want that sense of solitude, get a permit, go backcountry camping. It's gonna be amazing and you'll have that experience all to yourself.
Fifth point, participation equals conservation. It leads to conservation. When people go out and they have these amazing experiences in these wild lands, they naturally want to preserve them. And ultimately, no one's gonna conserve or preserve anything that they haven't experienced and don't understand the value of it. So ultimately, we think that more people getting outside leads to more conserved lands, more places for all of us to get outside.
Ana: Absolutely. The more we write about it, the more that places market themselves. Those are opportunities to educate people. It doesn't have to necessarily translate into something negative. It can actually be an opportunity to educate people about when to visit, why it's great to visit at different times of the year so you don't get this huge influx of people at just a little two-month window of the year, which is what happens in a lot of national parks. I think that the more that we write these stories, the more that marketers tell their stories, the more opportunities that we have to educate the public.
When it comes to striking that balance between being loved to death and being loved just right, Travel Oregon instantly comes to mind as a great example of knowing how to do that, so we reached out to Linea Gagliano.
Linea: I'm Linea Gagliano.
Ana: She's the Director of Global Communications at Travel Oregon.
Linea: I get to promote Oregon and talk about outdoor recreation, food, wine, beer, all the things I love, and I feel pretty lucky.
Ana: We wanted Linea's perspective because Oregon has an abundance of natural wonders that attract millions of travelers, visitors and probably even locals. They’ve become so popular that they almost risk being loved to death.
Linea: It's interesting that this is a topic, because this is something we're knee deep in right now. We just had our most successful marketing campaign ever, talking about the Seven Wonders of Oregon.
Man: Mount Hood was left off the list, so was the Oregon Coast. The Columbia River Gorge was somehow overlooked, as were the Painted Hills. Smith Rock and The Wallowas are both missing from it. All we can figure, is whoever named the Seven Wonders of the World never set foot in Oregon because even Crater Lake was left off their list. So we see your wondrous world and raise a seven of our own.
Linea: What happened with that is that the campaign was so visible, so popular that residents and visitors were all going to these Seven Wonders. At the same time, the population increase in Oregon was huge: people who had moved to Portland or to Bend to experience this outdoor recreation culture we have, where the population was just booming. So we have people who are heading out to all of these wonders. And it's not just that Seven Wonders campaign that inspired people to go there.
But since it was so visible, everybody started saying, "Oh my gosh, this Seven Wonders campaign is ruining Smith Rock. Everybody's there. It used to be a place we could go, find parking and enjoy. And now it's just filled with people and tourists." They don't realize that not everyone is a tourist, it's that population increase that's happening as well.
Ana: Which is a really good thing, right? Because you want locals to be as inspired to explore Oregon as travelers. In theory, that's a great thing, but...what's the saying? Is it too much of a good thing can sometimes turn into a bad thing?
Linea: That's exactly what we wanted everybody to do. Go out and experience Oregon, and we want Oregonians to play in their own backyard and to stay here and keep their dollars within Oregon.
Mark: Something that we think is really important about this issue, to really think about, is local business and the impact of all this tourism on these small independent and locally owned places. Whether it's in the gateways to these beautiful natural areas or some of these towns where you drive through on the way to a national park, there is so much money being spent in this realm and it really does have a positive economic impact.
Linea: We hear from businesses around those areas like Smith Rock, "Thank you so much. This increased our business by 19% since the Seven Wonders." So those businesses are thriving.
Mark: There's a common misperception, actually, about outdoor enthusiasts: that we're all dirt-bags and we're not spending any money and we're backcountry camping and we have no real effect. But it's not true. The latest data for the Outdoor Industry Association pegged the economic impact of this outdoor recreation economy at $646 billion annually.
And that's just in the United States. I can't even imagine what it is worldwide. But that data is a couple of years old now, and there's some legislation (editor’s note: the Outdoor REC act has passed!) and there's a memorandum of understanding right now where the commerce department is gonna start to formally measure this economy in the same way that they measure oil and gas and professional trades like law.
I'll be really interested to see what the statistics are, because I feel like this has grown. And certainly, with the National Park Centennial that we keep talking about, I know that there was definitely a surge in this past year. But what's interesting about that $646 billion is that the vast majority of the spending is not on gear.
When you think outdoor economy, you think the North Face, Patagonia, the Rock/Creeks and Massey's Outfitters of the world, and you think about gear. But it's actually… that's a small amount of the spending. $534 billion out of that $646 billion is on trips and travel.
Linea: But people who have been going to Smith Rock for the last 10, 20 years, or into the Columbia River Gorge are all of a sudden seeing this huge increase in travel there and feeling like, "Hey, you told everybody about our secret places and now it's not my place anymore. It's different than it has been."
Mark: So, I'm curious, Ana, what do you think destination marketers can do to make sure that you're not forgetting about the locals?
Ana: I think that a lot of destinations have done a terrific job of coming up with special events and activities that are particularly for local residents. Here in Orlando, in Miami and places around here, there are entire months sometimes that are dedicated to locals. So if you look at a place like Miami, they have a program called Temptations, where every month they have a different theme. So it could be spa, it could be food, it could be heritage. And in that month, they list a ton of partners and attractions and events that locals can go to at a reduced discount.
They've done a pretty good job over the last few years and they tend to schedule them during times where it's either shoulder season or the destination needs a little bit of a lift. Maybe it's a month that's not quite as popular with travelers from outside. But those are just some great ways that I think destinations extend a hand to the locals and say, "Come out, enjoy the place. Get to know your city a little bit better."
John Deleva has been in the travel marketing business for decades. I mean, he's on the road, I think, like well over 200 and something days a year.
Mark: I think he had some really interesting things to say, and one of them was this idea of marketing the off-season. And we're gonna talk about this in the future, for sure, because it's such an interesting subject. But he talked about visiting the national parks in the fall and in the spring and that shoulder season.
John: There's always that crazy summer window when kids are out of school and families are more free, but I don't think there's any more beautiful time to see a lot of our national parks than, say, October or April. Kind of when the leaves first start coming on the trees, or later on in fall.
Mark: As we heard from John about this idea of shoulder season, visiting some of the big National Parks in the fall or the spring so you're avoiding this huge spike in the summertime when all the kids are out of school and people are traveling, and we heard some similar things from Linea.
Linea: Travel on weekdays. Go really early. Make sure to follow parking laws and just be respectful for those who might live around there. We incorporate that into our messaging as much as we possibly can.
For the Columbia River Gorge that's been having quite a bit of congestion issues, we're working together with partners such as the Oregon Department of Transportation and friends of the Columbia River Gorge to get out that messaging of "Come on the weekdays."
But also what are some transportation alternatives instead of everybody driving their car up and parking in all of these parking lots? How about we encourage people to take some new transportation options and take the bus up there and take your bike with you and ride while you're up there and just make your trip a little bit different?
Woman: Riding a bicycle has never been more popular in Oregon. Whether it's road riding, mountain biking or traveling by bike, more and more people are exploring our state on two wheels.
Linea: Working together with our partners to get that messaging out is what we're really working on now.
Mark: Does it make it easier to conserve a place if more people know about it and are interested in it?
Linea: Well, I do think that there are studies, and I can't point to the exact study right now, but I do know that when people experience something like gazing on Crater Lake and seeing this beautiful blue water, that you have a place in your heart for those places and you want to preserve them.
You know, you've traveled there, you have fond memories of your family there, and photos, that you wanna make sure that people take care of it. I think, by and large, people who are into outdoor recreation want to preserve those places, and when they experience them, they certainly raise that level up of love in their heart and they want to sustain those places and their memories in them.
Mark: Coming up next...
Linea: There's a few bad apples. They don't take everything out, pack everything out with them. They don't take care of the area. And they really give that visitor a bad name.
Ana: We're taking a look at the rising popularity of outdoor recreation, its impact on public lands, and how education can play a vital role in preserving these treasured spaces, when RootsRated Labs continues. Stick around!
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Welcome back. We've been talking with Linea Gagliano from Travel Oregon about the downsides of having too many visitors. For the most part, tourists are respectful of the place that they're visiting, but...
Linea: There's a few bad apples, I guess you'd say, folks that don't take care of it. And maybe they aren't those outdoor lovers but they've decided, "Hey, I've heard about this hiking thing. Let's go check that out for a second," and then they don't pack everything out with them, they don't take care of the area. And they really give that visitor a bad name, saying...you know, showing, "Look at all these people. Tourists are coming in and ruining it."
Ana: According to Linea, there's always gonna be a few people, maybe they aren't outdoor lovers, maybe they're just trying this recreation thing out for the first time, who don't take care of the land, who don't take everything out with them that they brought in. And they end up giving everybody else who does do right by it a bad name.
Linea: We can't say who they are, but we do know that maybe they aren't those outdoor recreation lovers because they would take care of that place because they want to have that experience. They want their children to have that experience and their grandchildren to have that outdoor experience and see those pristine waters and hike those trails that aren't covered with litter. Getting out in nature is still important for people's health really, and the health of their relationships. And so taking care of that is really important.
Mark: Conservation has been at the core of our business here at RootsRated from the beginning. We're a One Percent for the Planet member, we've worked with Leave No Trace, Trust For Public Land, and we really strongly believe that more visitation actually leads to more conservation. But, you really have to channel the effort and there's so much to be done on the education side.
We've seen that there's a real need for education in conservation, and as outdoor recreation becomes more popular, a lot of people that are getting out don't necessarily have that culture of conservation. They don't understand really some of the things that they're doing and the fact that their behavior has permanent impacts on the land, or it can. Whether it's simple things like how to go to the bathroom outside, which is kind of one of the main things with Leave No Trace, or how to responsibly have a campfire, how to choose a good tent site, these are really basic things but they have to be taught.
Linea: I think that's the biggest part, is that education element. And what we're finding...just recently I had an aha moment, a little bit of it's maybe not people thinking that they are tourists. If they live in the state, they don't take that messaging as "Oh, well, I'm not a tourist. I live here, and I'm going hiking, but that doesn't apply to me necessarily." And I think there's an important shift in the language there, where it's maybe not just talking about tourists but anyone who's visiting any of these outdoor recreation areas to take care of the land there. That change in language a little bit might have people so they're not desensitized to that message or they're not shutting down and thinking, "Oh that doesn't apply to me."
But then they maybe perk up and listen to, "How can I help preserve this place? How can I? I live here and I want to preserve the place." And they'll listen to that messaging more about "Maybe we should go on weekdays," or "You know what, I have heard about that great new shuttle system that goes to the Columbia River Gorge, and I want to make sure that I'm having the best experience I can. And so maybe I will engage in some of those practices that make the place better."
Ana: I hear all the time this saying popping up more and more, especially on signage when you're hiking and things like that, where they say things like, "Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. When you leave here, make sure you leave with memories and nothing else."
Mark: One of the things that Linea talked about was really working with partners and helping all of the people in the place get the word out about education and about responsible ways to visit and how to mitigate your impact when you are visiting.
Ana: Linea says Travel Oregon works closely with guides to help spread that message.
Linea: We've been working with Senator Wyden from Oregon on some Recreation Not Red-Tape Bill that helps guides cut through that red tape, basically, so that they are able to be out more in outdoor recreation areas. And part of that is because these folks, that's their livelihood. And so if they're able to guide people and show them the best way to pack things out, take your trash with you, or the best paths to go on and to make sure that you're not stepping on tender fauna or things like that that may be ruined, that people might not know about.
Ana: Guides are really important when it comes to educating visitors. They sort of become the default ambassadors for a region or a destination because they really are your partners in conservation.
Linea: They definitely are and they so many times know the area better than anyone and are able to show people those secret little places or that perfect picture spot that you maybe didn't realize that when the sun hits at 6 p.m., it's this golden light.
Ana: Mark, how does what Oregon is experiencing compare to other places that are loved to death? Are they seeing a population growth, or is it a new influx of tourists? Or are these places just so famous that there's always a crowd?
Mark: I definitely think there are elements of what Oregon is experiencing that are happening to destinations all over the United States, and internationally as well. But I think there are a few things that play...the National Park Centennial was hugely successful. It was the first time the National Park Service really spoke with one voice and had a big campaign about why you should visit and how beautiful these places are.
We saw it actually with one of our clients, Utah Offices of Tourism. They had an amazingly successfully campaign called The Mighty Five that was driving to the big five national parks that they have.
They ended up at a situation where those parks were absolutely overrun with people. There were lines of cars out onto the highway with people trying to get in. And they really needed to expose all the other cool things they are to do in the southern part of Utah.
So they actually commissioned us and we wrote almost 100 articles very quickly and put them up, and they added to that campaign and they created the Road to Mighty. So the idea was, "We know your destination is one of these national parks or maybe all of them, but look at all these cool things that you can do nearby." And it should also extend people's vacation in Utah because you may still want your three days at Zion but now you realize there's 100 other things to do, so we actually need to take a two-week vacation in Utah.
So I think you're going to start to see destinations that get… they ride the wave, they promote the big outdoor experience, but then they say, "Oh wait. We really do need to make more information available to people about all of the different things that you can do outdoors. Because we don't want to concentrate on five or seven really pinnacle experiences.
What we want to do is say, 'Hey, there are hundreds of things to do here, and some of them are going to be more difficult to get to but you can make some really cool itineraries that stitch together several different vacation experiences.'" We were actually talking recently about something really similar to this where you had a friend suggest an alternate itinerary for you.
Ana: I did. I was just telling my friend this weekend that we were thinking about going to Yosemite next year on vacation with the kids. And I said, "I'm thinking of flying into San Fran. It's such a fun, colorful city. I think the kids would really like it." And she said, "It is gorgeous but it's gonna be so crowded and packed if you go there in the summer. Why don't you consider flying into Vegas or something like that?"
And she's like, "I flew into Vegas with a friend. We went rafting on the Colorado River. And we road-tripped through the desert. And then we ended up in Yosemite." And so, it was kind of like looking at the trip from literally a completely different point of view and introducing sort of alternate itineraries along the way, which is exactly what John Deleva had suggested when we spoke to him.
John: Let's go to Yellowstone. I mean, where might you fly in to get to Yellowstone? Typically, if you had a big trip planned around it, you might fly into Salt Lake or Denver. Maybe take a completely different perspective and fly into Minneapolis and see Devils Tower or the Badlands or Mount Rushmore on the way.
Change what would be your normal trip so you're still seeing that highlight. It's still gonna get its share of love, but you're gonna see a lot of other things along the way that you normally wouldn't do it.
I think that would be something to encourage trips that take a different route than expected by developing creative itineraries or really pushing for reasons for off-season travel, what they call shoulder season travel.
Ana: I love that idea because it lets people sort of enjoy their bucket list item but also discover something completely new, almost like a hidden gem that they probably don't even plan on seeing.
John: Definitely. I always think of a trip I took with a couple of friends 25 years ago, back in Maine. And we were just so excited to eat lobster every night, no matter what we did every day. That was almost the big thing, it was about those Maine lobsters. We ended up having scallops every night. It was almost like the scallops were better than the lobsters.
We went there and we just expected one thing and we had something totally different. It's a little irrelevant compared to what we were just talking but I'm just bringing up the point of how completely expectations can go another way. On your way to Yellowstone, you might find two or three things that were just as or maybe even better, you just didn't expect them coming.
Mark: We've heard from some really interesting people about this idea of a place being loved to death and I feel like we came away with some really actionable insight here. I think, after hearing from all of these experts and really thinking about this subject for quite a while now, my main takeaway here is that we really have to fight for conservation.
More than 142 million Americans, or 48.4% of the United States population, participated in an outdoor activity at least once in 2015. These outdoor participants went on a total of 11.7 billion outdoor outings. This is all from the 2016 OIA Outdoor Participation report.
And what we're finding is that outdoor recreation is becoming more and more important to people. I think as technology continues to expand and become more a part of our lives, we instinctively feel a need to unplug, to get out from behind the screens and to get out into nature and really reconnect. We really have to fight for conservation.
Ana: Coming up on the next episode of RootsRated Labs: Let's talk a little bit about lesser known destinations, those places that are not necessarily as popular as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite.
John: Let's take Utah for example. They did a campaign, it was an award-winning campaign. It was called The Mighty Five and it was about their five national parks. After that campaign got out there on a national scale, a lot of smaller destinations within Utah with significant tours and assets or reasons to go there started doing their own campaigns. "You've seen The Mighty Five, now just go a little further this way or that way." And they started playing off it really nicely. Now they really showed there's an awful lot more. You're not done with Utah yet.
Ana: The Travel Oregon clips you heard in this episode can be found on Travel Oregon's YouTube channel. You can find links to those on the show notes page for this episode on our website. You should definitely check them out. The imagery is stunning.
Mark: This podcast is brought to you by RootsRated Media. We provide content marketing software and services to outdoor brands, DMOs and anyone looking to reach active travelers. For more information, visit labs.rootsrated.com.
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Mark: This episode was produced by B.J. Smith. Special thanks to our guests, Linea Gagliano, John Deleva, and Matt McLelland. I'm your host, Mark Mcknight.
Ana: I'm Ana Connery.
Mark: Thanks for joining us on RootsRated Labs.
Originally written for RootsRated Media.