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The Road Trip is Dead. Long Live the Road Trip.

Recreation tourism is vital to the economy. Right now it’s relegated to road tripping. We can do that safely. We must.


Covid-19 wiped out the last month of ski season and halted spring road trips to hike, run, and bike in hubs like Moab, Utah. Elsewhere, a mix of civic responsibility, forced closures, and social media shaming ended the destination climbing season. Facing stay-at-home orders and gated entrances, hikers and sightseers stopped heading to national parks. Recreationalists everywhere stayed home.

The global ski resort industry proved that vacationing outdoors folk are excellent superspreaders when they congregate too closely indoors. In February and March, ski towns like Aspen, Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho, turned into outbreak hotspots. At one point in March, Eagle County, Colorado, home to Vail, had more positive cases than Denver.

But in the early summer months, road tripping to the mountains turned back on. As expected, cases came back as well, but this time it’s too soon to say if that uptick can be blamed on travelers (although a few are certainly at fault), or the more pressing issue of young people out at bars or attending COVID parties (don’t do that). What’s clear is that getting road trip tourism correct now is crucial to the economic health of the ski industry and the public health of mountain towns come winter. What road trip tourism can’t be allowed to do is overwhelm the high country’s limited health care facilities or place currently isolated Native American and rural poor communities at risk.        

Mountain destinations and the types of outdoor recreation that don’t involve crowded ski lodges have proven resilient. Vermont has been quick to recover. We also know that when people recreate outdoors, infection rates don’t spike. In Gallatin County, Montana, home to Bozeman and the Big Sky Resort, confirmed COVID-19 cases peaked in the 140s in early April before cases fell sharply as social distancing kicked in. This happened despite Bozeman residents getting out trail running, hiking, fishing, backcountry skiing, and biking in even greater numbers than normal. Bozeman only saw an uptick in cases again when indoor activities resumed. This is no longer debatable. Nationally, trail usage saw as much as a 200 percent year-to-year bump—while infection rates were plummeting. It’s also true that mountain destinations are just healthier places. Back in the Treasure State, Gallatin County was initially hit the hardest by contagion, but with its young and healthy outdoorsy population, thus far it’s only suffered one of the state’s 34 fatalities. 

The vast outdoors are safe—science is increasingly backing this up. Enclosed spaces like homes, meatpacking plants, and prisons are high hazard. Trails, rivers, and mountains, despite the initial fears of crowding, appear to be much less so. Summertime lift-served skiing is back up and running in Oregon, and Coloradans got a taste of it when Arapahoe Basin opened up safely before the snow melted.  

Now the outdoor world needs to double down on social distancing and mask use even as it reboots the tourism economy. When a seasonal destination like Moab, Utah, jettisons spring, its tourism businesses can lose as much as half their revenues. If the fall is lost, the suffering will be dire. Even Nevada, which, in addition to world-class biking and climbing, has Las Vegas as a draw, is planning for a near end to air travel until the pandemic ends. “The general consensus is that people won’t be ready to travel by air until the end of the calendar year or the first quarter of 2021,” says Travel Nevada’s Media Relations Specialist, Chris Moran. 

There’s no instant fix for any of this. Nor should there be. As with the nation, the Intermountain West can’t return to full normal until, depending on your outlook, we either acquire herd immunity and accept massive loss of life—or we get a vaccine. But as the early summer is proving, we can slowly restart the recreation tourism economy. It begins with the simple road trip; loading up the Family Truckster with Rusty and Audrey—and their bikes, boats, and camping gear—and seeing the country. To do it right, there will be no Wally World on this trip, but there will be the type of self-reliant, remote adventures that counterculture visionaries like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard found in the 1960s. Think thru-hikes, rock climbing, and trail runs and rides away from crowds. Think rough camping, motels, and rental homes away from crowded urban areas.

Some states like Colorado and New Mexico were at first asking out-of-staters not to visit. Colorado Tourism’s slug for this was “Waiting to CO!”, which is some sort of pun. Now as more of the state opens to tourism they’re driving home the message that the vast outdoors is the safest place outside of your own home. Other marketers are calling in-state road tripping “Statecations.” In New Mexico, the goal is to encourage intrastate destination-based outdoor rec while carefully monitoring the caseload and offering an economic lifeline to hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, and travel centers until they welcome out-of-state guests again. New Mexico, with its large and at-risk native populations—is still requiring 14-day quarantines for visitors. Meanwhile, states like Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, which sports a $65.5 billion tourism economy and is promoting road tripping, are now actively recruiting drive-to visitors from their super-regional markets, which in the Intermountain West can extend as far away as Southern California. This is happening. On a recent mountain bike ride in western Montana, I saw dozens of Washington plates at the trailhead. Most appeared to be families out camping.  

Governments and public health professionals can advise us on how to reboot tourism correctly, but it will fall on the people to make it work. Add your standard Orwell quote here about why that’s always the case. Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida now serve as examples of what happens when people scoff at science. And despite the political spin that’s being put on it now, those southern outbreaks have little to do with tourism and everything to do with common sense—or a lack thereof. 

As the editor of Mountain, I’ve covered the outdoors for 20 years and been dependent upon the outdoor economy my entire life. Speaking from that position, here’s what I’d like to see happen: Whether you’re driving to a climbing crag in your home state for an overnighter; heading to some fat tire dreamscape to tear it up for a week; or you just want to Griswold your way through a national park and gape at wildlife from unsafe distances (kidding), remember that you’re in someone’s home. Respect the wishes of the tribes and stay clear. Understand what an outbreak would mean to a small town with only a handful of ICU beds and keep your distance. More specifically, we need to pick up after ourselves and disinfect everything we touch. And we need to wear masks when in public, even if the town you’re in isn’t mandating that—yet. Think about the person cleaning your room or handing you your takeout. Think about the health care workers and kids hoping to go back to school this fall. Think about the elderly and the obese who are at such high-risk. 

And think about how dismal the ski season will be if we can’t get tourism right this summer and fall. —M.P. 


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