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How can tourism be sustainable without the workers?

We live in paradise, we love our job, we cherish our lifestyle and we treasure our community.

We leave our frantic lives in the city and move to the resort town searching for a higher quality of life, to enjoy all it has to offer, to get slower and to be happier, to built stronger and lasting relationships, to become a family.

When my husband and I first moved to the ski resort and really started living it to the fullest, I felt like I had to pinch myself everyday. "How lucky are we?" I couldn't stop thinking.

We quickly developed meaningful friendships, embraced the powerful sense of community, we skied all winter and hiked all summer, we so easily grasped the slow pace-relaxed-happy way of life. Of all of our moves, this was with no doubt the easiest and fastest we ever adapted.

Sounds like a dream...

The long term reality - however - is unfortunately not so dreamy... at some point we are all faced with one crucial question: how much longer will we be able to live here? How will we afford to be here in the long run?

The reality is that living in resort towns is quickly becoming hopeless for those of us who actually need to be here full time.

It's what people are calling "the paradise paradox", where tourists and second home owners are needed to bring in the revenue and keep the machine going, but where the cash they bring in has raised prices to the point that locals cannot afford a life here anymore. The vacation rental business is dominant and at the heart of how tourism is drawn to the location, it creates a huge amount of jobs, and yet - the workers needed to perform those jobs are not able to live here. It's a second-home-owner heaven, where the few homes available are taken by people who don't live here, they are intended for short term vacationers and going for extremely high rates. We need the homes in the rental business to build inventory for our visitors, and we need the property management business to create and sustain jobs, but this is also why the real estate market is out of control and none of the locals can manage to rent or buy a home.

It's a dog chasing its own tail.

The reality is we have reached a new level of desperation.

What was a slowly but surely - or surely but slowly - growing problem, has quickly escalated in the last couple of years.

Lack of affordable housing and unmanageable cost of living are no news in resort towns, but they now represent an issue growing extremely fast and rapidly getting to the point of no return.

It seems that the pandemic has escalated the situation in a couple of different ways.

A significant group of people able to pay prime rates for a few months stay, started coming to live in resort towns part time to work remotely in 2020 and 2021, which was made possible during Covid, and by doing so raised the average rent in the market.

Also, when we couldn't travel, and resort towns reachable by driving gained even more popularity, people jumped at the opportunity to buy homes in those areas.

A Vail Daily article from a couple of years ago reads: "The pandemic...and its effects are likely to permanently change the way consumers approach various aspects of their lives, including where they live... In this time of uncertainty, homes have become so much more than they have ever been. They are not only shelter, they are now also offices and schools... Since so many buyers are seeking homes that will cater to their vision of the ideal lifestyle, luxury listings that offer exciting bonus features and enjoyable amenities have become increasingly popular."

These buyers - seeking luxury homes and putting in millions of dollars into the market - however, are not primary residents.

They are second home owners looking for an investment, they are buying a home to utilize only a few weeks out of the year, or again to put it in the short term rental market.

These are especially controversial thoughts of mine: I am a business development manager focused on the property management and vacation rental business, thinking about the consequences of my professional life on my (and not only mine) personal life.

It is very complicated for me to talk about this, as these homeowners are the people I work with and the reason why myself and my colleagues have a job.

They are successful, charismatic and highly influential people who also care about the community and contribute very significantly. They are donors for our local organizations and associations, they are advocates for our towns and promoters of our activities and events. They are needed, and they are very much loved.

I have now lived in the resort town for over two years, and these are my considerations regarding where the housing dilemma comes from, and who and what it's impacting.

The shortage

Limited terrain, environmental concerns, constructions and permits limitations, sometimes conflicts of interest between the town and the main employers, are all factors contributing to inadequate inventory, absolutely insufficient to accommodate all the workers needed to keep the local businesses going.

The cost of real estate

The little that's available is definitely outside of most local's budget.

In Eagle County Colorado - where I experience this first hand - the median income per capita in 2021 was $ 49,000, and $ 91,000 per household.

In the County as a whole - the median price for a single-family home hit $1.2 million in the summer of 2022.

This past March the median list price was $ 14.2 million in Vail, $ 8.3 million in Avon and $ 5.04 in Edwards.

The competition with second-home-owners

People buying a second home or an investment property, not only can afford units that we couldn't even think of in our wildest dreams, they also come with resources locals will never have. Cash offers - for one thing - an absolute weapon in the market that we simply cannot beat. And budgets and offers that will buy places that are not even for sale.

The deed-restricted inventory

We still don't have enough of this: complexes implementing deed restricted units (available only for local residents and workers to purchase), allow just a small percentage of their inventory into it, and in most cases even those units come out at outrageous prices.

To share a recent example, a new development in West Vail Colorado called "Altus Local" is selling 15 deed restricted units to Eagle County workers only, and they have released a breakdown of the listing prices: a studio is priced $675K to$725K, a one bedrooms is $1.1M to $1.45M and a two bedroom is $1.725M to $2.1M.

I would love to know who are the locals that can actually afford that.

The vacation rental business

AirBnb and online vacation rentals dominate the tourism and the real estate market in the town. The prevailing presence of short term vacationers choosing to forego hotel rooms and booking condos and houses instead, is unlike anywhere I have lived and worked before.

Having spent most of my career in cities, we are used to large hotel supply more than adequate for the levels of incoming tourist, but here, residences and private homes are the primary accommodation, and make up for the majority of the inventory.

With that being said, strong regulations are necessary in order for the short term rentals (STR) to not take over and not to bring all the consequences we are now familiar with: sky rocketing real estate prices and inventory meant for vacationers rather than for full time year round workers. Most towns are still working on putting those regulations in place. Some are ahead of others, and they are keeping AirbNb and similar under control by limiting the number of STR licenses per year, or even by not allowing them at all in certain locations.

The renting nightmare

Renters' life is no better than buyers' life: the few developments available around our county aren't subject to any regulations or restrictions, including renting to non-residents.

In some mountain towns in Colorado, workers are living in campers or cars because they can’t find homes, or they are crowded in one bedroom apartments or trailer homes with 4 or 5 other people because they that's all they can afford.

Colorado state has no law regarding how much a landlord can raise prices. As a result apartment complexes are increasing rent year over year as much as 20% to 25%, pushing tenants out, because they can. Because due to the shortage problem, we don't have anywhere else to go.

The distance to work and activities

Locals are literally being pushed further and further away. If we draw a circle around the main locations within the resort, the area where we are able to live used to be a lot closer to the center of that circle. Now it's significantly far from it and getting further away. The only homes available in our price range are 40 to 50 - or in some cases even more - miles away, making work commutes long and stressful, and robbing us of that quality of life and all those fun things we came here for.

The people it's impacting

It's safe to say up to a year or two ago, we all realized the problem was real and escalating quickly, but at that point it was still impacting mainly line employees. Now its root have spread into the next group of workers: middle and senior management.

With people working at a variety of entry and senior level roles not being able to live here anymore and starting to move out of the area, we continue to face the struggle of understaffing and shortage of management. The lack of affordable housing is the number one obstacle for most employers when trying to recruit or retain employees.

How can we sustain - not only tourism but any business really - without our line workers and managers? How do we get out of the vicious circle that created itself since we can't build affordable housing without the construction workers, the electricians, the plumbers?

How do we maintain the high level of service we promise to our guests, how do we ensure that lack of service does not impact the reputation of the town?

It's simply not sustainable.

What will it take to restore quality of life for the locals? Will it take a recession to get back to normal levels? Will it need to get much much worse, before it gets better?

The counties, the towns and the employers are working together towards a solution.

In the area where I live, in the fall of 2022 the main employer has increased minimum wage and adjusted all salaries accordingly, to attract workers and to assist with cost of living.

But is raising salaries a solution, or is it maybe just a short term one? Does it simply postpones the problem while market prices and cost of living continue to grow exponentially and unsustainably? If wages go up, and purchasing power increases, cost of living will continue to go up as well.

So what is the solution? How do we make resort towns worker-friendly?

The truth is, we are far from the solution, and the dilemma - that's why I chose this word - will continue to be top of mind.

We all know what's going on, the local governments know, the employers know. Everybody is thinking together, everybody is working towards something. But it's a very complicated case.

We all know it's happening, but the road to a solution is much rockier that it seems. It is a real dilemma.

My next step in this discussion is to open the floor to the town councils. I have been eager to initiate the conversation with the town representatives, ask them to talk about what the local governments are doing, what challenges they face throughout the process of finding solutions and what they need from the other entities. They deserve a voice.

My take on this won't change things and won't solve the issue, but there is a real concern I feel and share with too many of my colleagues and friends; our lives are affected in such a real way, we need to keep the conversation going.

The situation we are facing is impacting the very core of what it means to live here, it's changing the way we feel about the choice we made when we moved here.

Where has the love for the locals gone? Where is the appreciation for what we do for the community? Where is the care and the support for the people who really make this place what it is?

By losing the locals, we are really losing the charm. By pushing us away, these places will stop being what they are and what they have been for so many of us.

As I was getting ready to publish, I came across this other interesting article on the subject that quotes a housing program manager from another town in Colorado, and I will use her strong and motivating statement to conclude.

“A resort community that doesn’t house its workforce isn’t a community. It’s just a resort."

Avon/Beaver Creek Colorado, my precious hometown, the light of my days, the hope of never having to leave it.

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