The impact of tourism on the Taos community has always been a complex issue and invokes a curious love-hate relationship. Having once lived in a tourist town back in Massachusetts, I admit to the vicarious thrill of sneering at the busloads of "Leaf Peepers" coming to view the spectacular autumn foliage. But the sneering ceased when they bought pottery or jewelry at my friends' shops and spent their money at our restaurants. Our county was the poorest in the state so the funds were welcomed.
But since moving here, I am also sensitive to the sights and sounds of the latest tourist assault, now that the restrictions of COVID are ending. As a shameless eavesdropper, I hear things while eating in our local restaurants that cause me to grit my teeth ("Taos is okay, but we like Santa Fe better"), but I manage to hold my peace.
Contrary to some of the more overwrought rhetoric written here, tourism isn't some evil white imperialist plot to colonize the natives. It's doubtful that families in California, Texas or Connecticut think in that manner when planning their vacations and besides, most tourists I've encountered come from every race on earth. More simply, people like to go and visit places that are nice. Especially if they've been cooped up over the past year and about to go stir-crazy.
There is a difference between tourists and travelers. Tourists come to places, but put a wall between themselves and where they arrive. I've seen that most blatantly in locales where cruise ships unload thousands of passengers. They spend their time gawking at the shops, buying souvenirs and eating a mediocre meal at some overpriced restaurant. After a day or two, they embark with no memory of where they had just been.
By contrast, a traveler wants to interact with the people, the culture and the history of their destination. They welcome meaningful connections and open themselves to the unexpected. Travelers arrive with respect and depart with a greater understanding and appreciation of the human experience.
Taos has been fortunate to welcome people like them. Not surprisingly, some of these same travelers became residents and added their skills, knowledge, tax dollars and generosity to our community. Those who fall into this category came to Taos with eyes wide open and have been a positive asset for us all.
Unfortunately, Taos is in danger of falling prey to its popularity, but this is happening all over the globe. I've done a fair amount of traveling over the past decades only to return to some treasured spot to find it changed beyond recognition and always for the worse.
Too many people, too many tour groups, too many vehicles clogging the roads. Again, there is nothing insidious about this process. It's just a by-product of people wanting to go to places they've heard are wonderful. And Taos is wonderful; otherwise none of us would be here. "The Mountains Called" might be seen by some as a silly New-Agey cliché, but there is some truth to it.
As noted by others, the role of the Taos Ski Valley in our future is vital. A few years ago, my wife and I took a day trip to Aspen. We figured it might be attractive for a pleasant meal and, if further enticed, an overnight at an inn. Our stay, however, lasted no more than an hour, enough time for us to buy two tepid cups of coffee and flee. What turned us off was the pervading odor of opulence for the sake of opulence. Aspen's vibe seemed to broadcast a vulgar, unapologetic snootiness that made us feel that unless you were loaded, you weren't truly welcome there. Other resort towns have followed the same downwards path.
The worst case scenario for Taos, I believe, is for skiers from afar to fly into the airport, shuttle to the mountain where they will exclusively ski, reside and eat. Once done, they will reverse the process and fly out. In doing so, they will bypass Taos completely, aside from a drink and sandwich at the Taos Cow food truck in Seco. They will miss the town, the businesses and more importantly, our rich and diverse culture.
As far as finding the perfect balance between enticing tourism, protecting the uniqueness of Taos and serving its population, I'll leave that to those who are better informed and better equipped. I would hope, however, that the last thing we all desire is for Taos to become "Aspen-ized."
Daniel A. Brown is an artist, teacher and writer living in Taos County.