Editorial: Privileged panorama

Jim Kibbe, of Greenwich, Conn., photographs a farm along Cloudland Road in Pomfret, Vt., on Sept. 29, 2020. Following COVID-19 protocols,  Kibbe and his wife are on a week-long trip to see the leaves in Maine and Vermont as he is between jobs.

Jim Kibbe, of Greenwich, Conn., photographs a farm along Cloudland Road in Pomfret, Vt., on Sept. 29, 2020. Following COVID-19 protocols, Kibbe and his wife are on a week-long trip to see the leaves in Maine and Vermont as he is between jobs. "We're trying to make the best of it," he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 09-18-2023 12:31 PM

It’s hard to regard news that Pomfret and Woodstock are closing a couple of the area’s most scenic roads during foliage season as anything but a day of reckoning for our corner of the world, which for decades has sold its soul for the tourist dollar and its prime residential properties to the highest out-of-state bidders.

Still, it was a bit of a shock to learn that access to Cloudland Road and Barber Hill Road will be limited to local residents between Sept. 23 and Oct. 15 because hordes of tourists have descended in recent years on Pomfret’s picturesque Sleepy Hollow Farm, near the Woodstock town line, creating what the town’s Selectboard has described as “significant safety, environmental, aesthetic and quality of life issues.”

Sadly, this radical remedy appears justified. A trip up Cloudland Road during a recent foliage season revealed scores of out-of-state tourists and their vehicles all over the road as they photographed the iconic farm scene below, sometimes descending onto private property.

According to VtDigger, Pomfret officials attribute the recent influx to the advent of social media, with those who visit enticing hundreds of others to come via their posts on various platforms. That’s undoubtedly true, but in our view it minimizes the key role played, for better or for worse, by the state and local tourism marketing machines.

Tourism is undeniably big business in Vermont. The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development reports that 13 million visitors spent more than $3 billion in 2022 and supported nearly 35,000 workers in leisure and hospitality businesses. They generated an estimated $387 million in tax revenue in 2021; outdoor recreation accounted for 4.1% of Vermont’s Gross Domestic Product that year. Vermont’s natural attractions dictate that tourism will always play a significant role, but when 11% of Vermont’s workforce depends on visitors, it suggests to us that more economic diversity with better-paying jobs is highly desirable.

The state Department of Tourism and Marketing says it works hard to “promote Vermont as a top, year-round, global tourism destination and an ideal place to live and work.” Its efforts include, among other things, an official tourism website; monthly email newsletters with more than 120,000 subscribers; in-house video content; support of relocation initiatives to attract new residents and businesses to Vermont; daily social media posts; and active engagement “with the media for positive coverage of Vermont as a tourism destination.”

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Indeed, a recent travel article in The New York Times (“36 Hours in Burlington, Vermont”) reports that the city “draws visitors for its natural beauty, farm-to-table food scene and progressive sensibility.” Recommended lodgings for a fall weekend start at $300 a night and ascend to $459 a night. Exploring the Lake Champlain region is described as “an almost sacred experience in fall, when the landscape unfurls into a spectacular temple.” (We do wonder, though, whether the city’s homeless are invited to worship there.)

For its part, Woodstock does not take a backseat to state marketers when it comes to mounting a charm offensive aimed at attracting tourists, new residents and businesses. Its town blog describes Woodstock as “the prettiest small town in America.” It lays claim to being the safest town in the state, and one that also boasts one of Vermont’s best high schools. It’s “a wonderful place to live, work and play,” with “year-round beauty in spades.”

There is indisputably a lot to like about the Woodstock area and the state of Vermont as a whole, and a certain amount of promotional hyperbole is forgivable. But there’s a price to be paid for it, too.

Throngs of tourists and newcomers attracted to rural areas in post-pandemic America can overwhelm the available infrastructure, as on Cloudland Road. They can also create deeper issues of equity and quality of life for existing residents, many of whom after all came here in part to enjoy the quiet beauty of nature.

When wealthy out-of-state home buyers snap up a limited supply of houses for well above the asking price, they drive up prices and assessment values for everyone, further restricting the housing supply. As a result of their heightened desire for privacy, newcomers also often turn the properties they buy into exclusive retreats hidden away in the hills that they only occasionally use and market as short-term rentals the rest of time. And too often, they fail to become active participants in community life. Yes, they pay high property taxes and purchase local services, but their presence can impoverish as well as enrich.