In Marfa Public Radio’s series “Tipping Point,” we explore tourism-driven development in Marfa and the greater Big Bend region. But with little to no tourism, what’s next for our communities?
By Carlos Morales
The noonday sun in Terlingua, Texas is blindingly hot.
Crystal Albright heads into one of the few shaded areas within eyeshot of this far-flung corner of the Chihuahuan Desert — a boat barn.
Albright is a co-owner of Desert Sports.
The company runs guided tours on the Rio Grande along with hiking and biking trips. Its store is filled with everything you need to survive a day trip around here while outside, kayaks and canoes are stacked high.
The boats though aren’t getting much use these days. Tourism here always slows in summer, but earlier this spring, hotels, motels and short-term rentals were closed for over a month to everyone except essential workers, slowing the flow of tourism more. Health officials said the move was instrumental in slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Far West Texas, but it also dealt a blow to the region’s tourism economy.
And it wasn’t just that tourists stopped coming because lodgings were closed. The area’s biggest draw, the 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park, had also closed out of precaution for the coronavirus.
“We’ve been through other closures before, there’s been a couple of government shutdowns,” said Albright. “We’re used to having challenges thrown at us but this one was different.”
The park has since partially reopened, along with hotels and other lodgings.
By all accounts, Far West Texas was on track to have a banner year. Big Bend National Park was expected to surpass half-a-million visitors for the first time in its 76-year history. And when tourism is high, the dollars flow to nearby cities.
But the pandemic has taken a toll on local economies.
“Visitation went from a full 100% to zero,” said Robert Alvarez, the executive director of the local tourism board, Visit Big Bend.
“We didn’t think it would be to this extent or last this long. Now it’s really come to be our worst nightmare.”
Some of the most important taxes that counties here receive—hotel occupancy taxes—have plummeted since the Spring. Alvarez said in Brewster County, which is home to Big Bend National Park, these taxes plummeted in April, going from $116,294 last year to $1,043 this year. In the following months, the county’s tax revenue rose, but it still was less than half of what is normally collected. Other counties and cities throughout the Big Bend region have seen similar declines.
“It will be years before we’re back to normal,” according to Alvarez, “Before we’re able to get back to where we were at the beginning January 1, 2020.”
For Crystal Allbright and her team at Desert Sports, the view ahead is month-to-month. They’ve received two loans and their landlord has offered to waive rent if they need it. It’s been a challenge, she said, but she’s cautiously hopeful that the company can make it to next Spring.
However, for other business owners in the Big Bend region, the impact was immediate.
“I just couldn’t survive it. There was no way,” said Lesley Villareal.
She had just set up her own gallery, among the boutiques and artsy shops on Marfa’s main street where she sold her landscape photography. She had been open for nearly eight months — then the pandemic hit. She tried re-opening her shop with safety measures in place but said it just didn’t work. So she called it.
“I wasn’t really comfortable with (re-opening) because then I’m just saying it’s okay, come visit us, bring the virus here,” said Villareal. “So I really had these inner battles of ‘do I keep my business alive? Do I risk getting sick?”
Now, Villareal mainly sells her work online. Some of her eye-catching items: coffee mugs, and t-shirts with unfavorable Yelp reviews of Marfa businesses. She calls it “Hated on Yelp.”
Some of the choice quotes: “Everyone hates their lives here.” “It sucks pretty good.” “Worse than it already was.”
“It’s just poking fun,” explained Villareal. “Listen, Marfa is not for everyone. It’s okay.”
Even with the closures though, some tourists are still making their way out to Big Bend communities.
In recent months, they’ve filled re-opened hotels, coffee shops and hiking trails.
“I like it out here because I like the isolation or like an oasis in the middle of nowhere,” said Sarah Tollemache, who came to Marfa on a family trip.
“We’re hoping to, to see some art and see some of the Marfa staples,” said Devin Smith, who was visiting with a friend from Austin. “But generally, we expected to chill out a little bit.”
No matter how many people come through, Robert Alvarez with Visit Big Bend said the rest of this year is a wash.
“The fall was looking like we’re making a small recovery here. But our big events, you know, the chili cook-off, have been canceled.”
Normally held in November, a pair of chili cook-offs brings in thousands of visitors to South Brewster County and are some of the largest public gatherings in the region.
Back in Terlingua, outside of Desert Sports under the intense West Texas sun, Crystal Albright said she’s getting one or two customers a day now.
“We’re not encouraging people to come,” she said. “But if they’re gonna come, we want them to be healthy and enjoy their time here.”