Can tourism kill a destination?

Tourism's Effect on Communities

It's easy to see why people would pay good money to live in Jackson Hole, Wyo.'s incredible setting.
It's easy to see why people would pay good money to live in Jackson Hole, Wyo.'s incredible setting.

The effect tourism has on the environment gets a great deal of attention since scenery is often what draws people to destinations in the first place. But it's also important to recognize how tourism impacts communities and residents. Before towns build hotels, restaurants, gift shops and other attractions to accommodate tourists, they're often farming villages or mining towns -- typical places with typical people. Tourism changes all that. Outside business interests buy up land for commercial and residential developments, eventually pushing farmers, ranchers and small business owners out of a job. New people move in, raising land value and changing the identity of the community. Locals soon find themselves living in a hometown they don't recognize.

Changes in a community's identity can often be drastic. A great example of this is Aspen, Colo., a town whose transformation was so dramatic that "Aspenization" has come to describe any uncontrolled, undesirable development. In the early 1900s, Aspen was a mining town on the verge of extinction. But after World War II, the ski industry took hold and Swiss-chalet-style resorts began popping up everywhere. Today, Aspen would be virtually unrecognizable to those who lived there just 60 or 70 years ago.

Some sections of the Great Wall of China are undergoing similar identity changes. At Badaling, a restored section of wall from the Ming Dynasty is almost completely overshadowed by the Western-style development that threatens to engulf it. There, you can ride toboggans or cable cars before sitting down for lunch at KFC and coffee at Starbucks. The development at both Aspen and Badaling are good examples of how the identity of a place can change as a result of tourism.

The other harmful effect of tourism on a community is that the cost of living can become very high. As a destination becomes increasingly popular, more people want to live there, causing the land value to skyrocket, as was the case in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a former agricultural town at the gateway to Teton National Park. When tourism first began to take hold in the 1960s, small lots were selling for $12,500, a high price for the time. But by 2007, the median home price hit $1 million, and the cheapest condo sold for an incredible $512,500. Many local residents who were priced out of their own community decided to relocate. Workers in the town's restaurants, hotels and ski resorts, many of them earning minimum wage, also found it impossible to live in Jackson Hole. This situation caused resentment between laborers and locals, and the newcomers to the town. Unfortunately, communities everywhere now have to deal with these issues as the tourist industry grows around the world.

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