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A thoughtful approach to sustainability in Whitefish

by Dylan Boyle
| August 5, 2021 12:00 AM

In the 1940s, the visionary community of Whitefish pointed to the mountains and envisioned a field of dreams, a place that would draw visitors through mountain recreation while also contributing to the health of our local community.

Since that time, the townspeople of Whitefish have created a robust community that is able to enjoy one of the best ski resorts in the nation, along with a vibrant downtown. But with all the good we have in Whitefish, we are also experiencing some pain.

Over the past several years, Whitefish stakeholders and community members have participated in a robust dialogue around sustainability and how it can be incorporated into destination marketing efforts. That dialogue preceded the pandemic with the formation of the Sustainable Tourism Management Committee in 2018, but the experience of the past 16 months has created an acceleration of trends that were already putting Whitefish under significant pressure.

Everywhere, people are saying, “Stop marketing Whitefish!” And I get it. We are all feeling the pinch on many levels. Our Explore Whitefish team and board is made up of longtime residents who live and breathe the well-being of this community. We all want to find a good balance and preserve our community’s livability and character.

Our current situation is not unique to Whitefish, as mountain towns all across the West are experiencing record visitation and a new influx of residents. While we are powerless to reverse these global trends, we are taking action in the areas we can influence.

Our main focus for visitors is to promote responsible and sustainable travel and recreation. Our “Be a Friend of the Fish” campaign asks travelers to take care of our townspeople with messages like slow down, show respect and leave no trace. We ask visitors to plan ahead, be patient and recreate responsibly. The work we do is asking people to be more than just a consumer of Whitefish. We ask that they be stewards.

Many people don’t realize that Explore Whitefish has not marketed the summer season in more than a decade. We all know it’s too busy here in July and August and if we had a magic wand, we would turn the summer visitation nozzle down.

While we are crushed with visitors right now, many people also don’t realize Whitefish hotels hover around or below 50% occupancy during October through April. That’s why we only try to attract mindful travelers in the late fall, winter and early spring. And we don’t try to attract just any visitor.

Whitefish is thoughtful about the type of traveler that will play well here, and only markets to experientially conscious travelers. These visitors respect the natural environment, culture, heritage, landmarks and well-being of the people and places they visit. They seek engagement, knowledge and adventure. They are connected, curious, mindful and independent.

They place a high value on authentic travel experiences that respect and support the local character of the place and its environment. Our robust approach to sustainability is appealing and differentiating to these travelers who we most hope to attract during the quieter months.

We have not added any new hotel rooms since 2016, but one threat to our town is the proliferation of short-term rentals (primarily offered through Airbnb and Vrbo) that have more than doubled the room inventory. We now have more than 1,000 of these rentals within our ZIP code, averaging 2.2 bedrooms. On top of approximately 1,400 hotel rooms, these rentals add more cars to the roads and hurt our established local lodges and bed and breakfasts; who offer shuttles and employ local workers.

The sharp increase in short-term rentals has also caused a lack of resident housing, contributing to a workforce shortage because they eliminate leases for local residents who want to live and work here year round. I applaud our city officials for looking at better ways to limit the proliferation of these rentals.

While we need to look for ways to keep our quality of life healthy, we also need to continue to be careful not to become a hollowed-out, one-season, gateway town. We’re living in unprecedented times and need to continue to be thoughtful about our approach, study the data and avoid over-emotional reactions.

If we are truly going to be a sustainable community, we need consistent, year-round jobs to keep families employed. A seasonal economy has its own very real problems. The Sustainable Tourism Management Committee is working with the city to manage the peak season, while also being thoughtful about bolstering the low months of visitation with travel from mindful visitors who add to the fabric of Whitefish.

These are difficult times with so much change occurring. I want to assure our community that as we navigate these new challenges and continue down the road of destination stewardship and visitor management, we are working hard every day to protect Whitefish, integrating sustainability into all our efforts.

Continued community engagement and thoughtful work together will be the key in the long term.

Dylan Boyle is the Executive Director for Explore Whitefish.

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