By Joanne S. Marchetta
Although Lake Tahoe’s economy has facets—like building trades, health care, education, and a growing number of gig and remote workers, to name a few—the foundation of our region’s $5 billion economy is undeniably tourism. Equally apparent is that visitation is impacting Tahoe’s environment and our communities. To put it plainly, amazing places like this can be “loved to death.” After COVID significantly boosted participation in outdoor recreation last year, national surveys show that more than 60 percent of new participants say they expect to continue their outdoor activities post-pandemic. As tourism expands globally and the populations of northern California and northern Nevada continue to grow, the way outdoor recreation and tourism is managed here needs to change.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) is both learning and leading on this front. We became one of the founding signatories of the global Future of Tourism Coalition early last year to help establish guiding principles for destination communities to reduce tourism impacts and to protect the very assets that make places like Tahoe so special. When COVID hit, TRPA, the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, visitors authorities, and dozens of recreation partners quickly banded together to address the near daily issues arising from careless and impulsive outdoor recreation. Through COVID we became united.
From this coalition, we are charting the future of recreation and tourism at Lake Tahoe. Behind the collaboration and partnership is an understanding that it is time for Tahoe to shift focus from the quantity of tourism to the quality. This winter, with dozens of partners on board, we established a starting point of best practices to be broadcast regionally to recreators during peak periods this summer and going forward.
For good reason, litter is a focal point of new actions this summer. Trash has become a problem and a symbol of the need for better stewardship and responsible recreation. TRPA and our partners are connecting enforcement, education, reporting systems, and additional infrastructure to stop littering and keep beaches and trails clean. Multiple ambassador programs are springing up throughout the region, from the Tahoe Rim Trail to community beaches, to help recreators understand what responsible recreation looks like. Additional trash pickups and capacity are planned for most recreation areas and trailheads, and reporting systems—including a free app available at citizensciencetahoe.org—will improve responsiveness.
The way we attract visitors and communicate to them is central to the changes. Regional visitors authorities have launched a traveler responsibility pledge campaign that will help deepen the respect visitors have for our environment and communities. Tourism agencies are also shifting their marketing to attract fewer people on weekends and peak times to spread use out over periods of lower demand. The environmental education collaborative, Take Care Tahoe, will be thoroughly on display again this year: on ambassadors’ uniforms, retail locations, through on-site signage, and on digital billboards along travel routes. The future of tourism includes integrating messages of stewardship throughout the visitor’s experience.
Traffic and parking are also on everyone’s minds as we prepare for summer. New sources of funding through Placer County and the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association will make free, on-demand microtransit and park-and-ride services available across North Lake Tahoe. Also, along Nevada’s East Shore, express transit service is expected to return and Washoe County is piloting a Reno-to-East Shore shuttle service available by reservation. And in the crowded Emerald Bay corridor, California Highway Patrol has applied for funds to increase traffic and parking enforcement. In each of these areas, more permanent solutions to parking and congestion are coming forward under the new Regional Transportation Plan approved by the TRPA Governing Board in April.
As we chart this new future, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Lake Tahoe is ours to share. Ninety percent of the land in the Tahoe Basin is publicly owned and the lake is considered a national treasure and an international icon. Visitors come from far and wide to experience the incredible beauty and, in so doing, become part of our communities. Most of our livelihoods are intertwined with the joy and vitality everyone can derive from Lake Tahoe, but that doesn’t mean the unfavorable impacts of tourism need to be accepted. Through this new coalition, we have committed to managing tourism at Lake Tahoe more responsibly and in a way that is grounded in mutual respect: respect for residents, for visitors, and for Tahoe’s incredible natural beauty. We all have a part to play in this.
Joanne S. Marchetta is the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency