Below is a recap of the Project Team’s top takeaways from visioning workshops held around the Tahoe and Truckee region May 16-18, and Jun 9 2022. You can also view the ideas and responses captured during the Mentimeter exercise.
Creating a Culture that Cares
There is unity around protecting the lake. Workshop participants were united in a desire to protect the lake. This extends to protecting the lake’s water clarity, its beaches and forests, and all the species that depend on it, including us.
Attitudes of entitlement and carelessness are behind many negative impacts. The top concern about the ability to Take Care of Tahoe is around entitled and careless attitudes. These result in all sorts of negative impacts to the health of the natural environment and the quality of life and experience in Tahoe.
Lack of equity negatively impacts Tahoe’s culture of caring. Some made a connection between equity and a culture of caring. When locals fail to benefit from tourism or to see its benefits, they do not experience a “culture that cares.” This disconnect reduces pride and ownership and motivation to protect the lake.
Trash and lack of capacity to manage it is a major concern. The most cited careless behavior is trash littering the environment and endangering the health of the lake. A related concern is the lack of capacity to manage the waste generated by businesses, short-term renters, and day visitors.
Another major priority is building wildfire awareness. Fire risk, whether due to carelessness or lack of awareness, was cited as an existential risk to Tahoans, with a need for greater enforcement as well as awareness to prevent wildfires. It’s a priority for all to understand how easily wildfires can start and that evacuation routes from Tahoe are limited.
Careless driving and parking are symptoms of transportation challenges. Reckless driving behaviors – whether speeding or parking violations – flow from frustration with congestion. This impacts safety, quality of life, and air quality. Solutions include creating more low-impact transit options, such as bike paths, water transit, and shared transit. Management tactics could include enforcement, parking bans, and more paid parking.
Education and awareness must be scaled up and consistent across the basin. Efforts like Take Care Tahoe need to be further amplified and hammered home with people before they arrive and throughout their stay. Messaging alerts (such as a code of conduct) could be shared on mobiles. Locals should be inspired to lead by example in support of creating a united culture that cares. All Tahoe region organizations should be invited to integrate Take Care messaging into their community engagement programs.
Many support enforcement, bans, and fees to control impacts and fund priorities. Attendees backed use of basin entry fees, more fees on short-term rentals, stricter parking enforcement, more paid parking, and re-allocation of TOT dollars to fund infrastructure and destination stewardship initiatives. They also supported bans on single-use bottles and bags and hiring more officers to address litter, parking, noise, and fire violations. The idea of creating paid or volunteer ambassadors came up several times. Whether called “Lake Rangers,” “Blue Crews” or “The Tahoe Corps,” these groups could be enlisted to guide visitors and residents in respecting local laws and practices.
Tahoe needs to shift its brand away from a party place to a family-oriented outdoor destination. Many believe that downplaying or stepping away from Tahoe’s reputation as a place to party could defuse disrespectful visitor behaviors. Instead, Tahoe’s marketing engines could be re-geared to attract responsible travelers interested in low-impact outdoor activities, nature, local arts and culture, and being stewards of the lake.
Tahoe should make it “Cool to Care.” Increasing awareness of the Citizen Science Tahoe program can teach visitors and locals, especially young ones, how to make a difference by caring for the lake. This program could be paired with a new “Cool To Care” messaging campaign activated via social media, influencers, videos content, reward programs, a passport or badge system, and informational QR codes. All were supported as fun and positive ways to shift the cultural norms.
Tahoe Experience and Access
Tahoe region residents share a deep passion for the lake. The “Tahoe experience” flows from awestruck love of the lake’s stunning beauty and the region’s extraordinary mountain lifestyle. Many reported a shock of love at first sight, a feeling so strong that they were inspired to relocate their lives to stay close to the lake. Many believe this “Tahoe experience” should be granted to visitors as well.
Increased visitation has damaged the Tahoe Experience. Residents are frustrated by being separated from the places they love and having to schedule their own experiences around busy times. Many feel deprived of the “Tahoe Experience” they treasure so much. Leaving their home on a summer Sunday could mean sitting in traffic for hours. Many feel for visitors who come to Tahoe only to encounter traffic and long lines for parking spots to see places like Emerald Bay.
Disrespectful behavior is a rising threat. Disrespect for others, for the lake, and for the environment is adding a disturbing tone to the Tahoe experience, even leading longtime residents to move away. Concerns go well beyond visitors who behave rudely or who damage the lake and environment. Locals who attack others for visiting are seen as part of the problem.
Decisions about access require a balance of interests. Many advocate for limiting access to guard the Tahoe experience and protect the ability of all, residents included, to enjoy what they love about the lake. Possible solutions include a basin user entrance fee, limited day access, fewer short-term rentals, a reservation system, corridor access (where only those who stop are charged), and zonal fees. Others shared concerns that such measures would limit access to the well-off, making Tahoe more exclusive, rather than provide access to all kinds of people.
Both residents and visitors require more education in environmental stewardship. A constant theme of these discussions was the need for clear, concise and actionable education for visitors and residents alike. Possibilities include programs for local schools as well as a Tahoe Community College stewardship program.
Multimodal transportation options are seen as a key to reducing congestion. The importance of getting people out of cars came up in all eight discussion groups. Most Tahoe visitors arrive by car and rely on it their whole visit because alternatives are few, incomplete, or difficult to access. Sustainable funding is needed for such alternatives as electric water taxis, transportation to trailheads, bike-friendly trails (especially circling the lake), and more park-and-ride options. Some believe a “car-free” Tahoe is possible. Group transportation for visitors could include storytelling about the lake’s history, geology and cultural heritage as well as lessons in stewardship.
It is critical, but difficult to determine Lake Tahoe’s carrying capacity. The importance of determining the Tahoe basin’s carrying capacity was a central theme in all break-out groups. One participant shared that the USFS had engaged his team to determine the basin’s carrying capacity, but they were unable to come to a conclusion. Instead, environmental thresholds were created that are used to this day.
Placing limits on tourism is seen as necessary. Creative solutions are needed to address the behaviors of different kinds of visitors, whether day trippers, overnight visitors, or longer-stay visitors who take the time to get to know the area. Proposed solutions included regulating short-term rentals, encouraging longer stays, discouraging “party rentals,” using lower pricing to encourage mid-week visitation, and putting a stop to marketing.
Lake Tahoe should be protected by a special designation. Securing a “special designation” for the Tahoe Basin could be a key to protecting it, but accomplishing this now would be extremely difficult. Many believe it was a big mistake not to give Tahoe the status of a National Park decades ago.
The Tahoe Experience could be improved through creative solutions. Participants offered a variety of creative ways to improve the Tahoe Experience. These included sharing messaging alerts with tourists and locals to share information about traffic congestion, busy trailheads, wildfire conditions, etc. Others proposed use of social media influencers to increase environmental stewardship or creating a pledge against littering.
Tahoe’s Economic Engine
The unchecked rise of short-term rentals has thrown Tahoe’s capacity for visitors out of balance. In the past, Tahoe’s capacity for visitors was governed by its hotel room inventory. When hotels were full, visitation was capped. The rise of short-term rentals has allowed visitor accommodations to far exceed the capacity of Tahoe’s other infrastructure (while erasing affordable housing). To help manage visitor capacity, regional and local governments have an opportunity to better address short-term rental regulations.
Residents are opposed to increasing the number of visitors. While residents understand that quality of life is linked closely to the tourism economy, they want curbs on visitor numbers. Any perceived attempt to increase, rather than manage visitation will be met with adamant opposition. (Note: The CREST Team’s economic model will apply data to test the impact of several scenarios, including the impact of reducing visitation, attracting different kinds of visitors, or dispersing them seasonally.) Pressures also could be relieved by dispersing visitors outside the Basin to places like Virginia City, Genoa and Sierra Buttes.
Tahoe’s capacity for visitors also is impacted by increased numbers of remote workers and part-time homeowners. The arrival of remote workers has further strained Tahoe’s capacity for visitors. They, along with day visitors. second-homeowners, and short-term renters, are seen as taxing Tahoe’s capacity limits while contributing little to the local economy or way of life. Possible solutions: higher prices/taxes/fees, a highway toll, demand-based pricing, an end to free beach parking, and added fees for in-and-out parking. Many support a concerted effort to integrate newer residents into Tahoe’s culture of caring for the lake. (NOTE: There also is opportunity in increasing awareness of California and Nevada’s 25-year, $1.2 billion investment in Tahoe outdoor amenities that benefit all types of residents and visitors.)
Many see little opportunity for diversifying Tahoe’s economy until major infrastructure and workforce issues are addressed. Apart from attracting remote workers, many see little near-term opportunity for diversifying the Tahoe region’s economy away from tourism. New economic activity would be dependent on addressing major systemic issues, including a scarcity of workforce housing and workers, buildable space, transportation options, educational opportunities, parks, health care, and broadband infrastructure. (NOTE: The Tahoe Prosperity Center’s Envision study found only 31 percent of residents believe the region is too dependent on tourism.)
Tapping the economic power of tourism is seen as a viable way to address the long-term solutions required for a new economy. The Tahoe region’s millions of visitors – estimated between 8 million and 15 million – vastly outnumber its 74,000 residents (including 17,000 in Truckee). Deriving more value from these legions of tourists – as well as part-time homeowners and “new” locals – is seen as a viable way to address long-term solutions required for a new economy. Thus, the region’s most powerful economic development strategy could be tapping the power of its tourism economy to address the above systemic issues, while curbing visitor numbers and attracting responsible visitors and residents. In the near term, new tourism-based entrepreneurial opportunities could flow from this strategy. This could be Tahoe’s world-class solution.
There is openness to reshaping Tahoe’s tourism economy to focus on “eco-tourism” — targeting visitors who value the region’s natural resources and way of life. Tahoe has shifted its tourism economy in the past and can do it again through marketing and strategic development. A significant obstacle could be a persistent belief that the destination needs no marketing, which would be an essential ingredient in a strategy to attract a different kind of visitor. Opportunity may lie in attracting practitioners of “silent sports” like kayaking and birding, whose numbers in Tahoe already seem to be rising, and preserving the region’s historical fabric for cultural travelers.
Increased density is seen as a path to address workforce housing, but fragmented county governance is seen as a barrier to change. A local entrepreneur believes his idea of raising two stories of housing over existing public parking lots would never win approval. Moves to raise buildable limits or relaxing restrictions on ADUs could be structured as ways to develop more workforce housing. (NOTE: These possibilities could be suggested to a multi-disciplinary Tahoe group focusing on creating workforce housing options.)
Tahoe’s red-hot 2021 tourism economy appears to be cooling, fresh evidence of the cyclical nature of tourism. Business owners say bookings are down significantly from last year. This could create a window to put better practices in place, but also will impact earnings and the ability of tourism-dependent local governments to address issues.
Solutions to the Tahoe region’s most pressing issues should be customized for each part of the region under an over-arching, integrated plan. The governance to accomplish this goal does not exist today. “We need to think as a united region and synchronize our messaging and infrastructure.”
This project has opportunities to inspire business operators, casinos included, to attract and reward responsible visitation. Owners of a South Shore property management company targets its online strategy to a less disruptive clientele, sets clear expectations for renters, and promptly resolves neighbors’ complaints. Businesses could offer rewards for responsible behavior, such as discounts or free drinks for those who bike rather than drive.
The health of the lake is paramount. “The economic engine doesn’t exist without the lake,” said one participant. Among the biggest concerns is the threat of climate change, an existential threat to the viability of Tahoe’s primary economic engine.