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Survey finds increase in first-time Big Bend visitors, with most now staying outside the park

A view at Big Bend National Park in February, 2023.
Travis Bubenik
Marfa Public Radio
A view at Big Bend National Park in February, 2023.

A new report on tourism trends at Big Bend National Park finds that the sprawling Far West Texas park has in recent years seen an increasing number of first-time visitors and a shift toward most visitors staying outside of the park during their visit.

The 48-page report released Monday was prepared by rural economics experts from Texas A&M University on behalf of the Brewster County Tourism Council, which runs the county’s “Visit Big Bend” marketing efforts.

The report was based on more than 1,000 interviews and surveys of Big Bend visitors who were asked why they visit the park and what they do while in the park, among other questions. The report drew on similar surveys conducted in 2003-2004 and 2012-2013.

More than 56% of the people surveyed about their 2022 Big Bend trip said they had never previously been to the region before, the researchers said. More than 10% said they had been to the area 10 or more times.

“In a shift from previous studies, most (70%) respondents indicated staying in gateway communities during their visit to Brewster County,” the report stated. “Across all seasons, visitors were most likely to stay within the gateway communities in Brewster County, with Terlingua/Study Butte being the most common gateway community.”

For those who live in the Big Bend region, that finding is perhaps not too surprising. The Terlingua area has seen a boom in short-term rentals alongside the recent growth of visitors to the national park. Local officials have meanwhile raised concerns about their ability to keep track of all the rentals being built in the region and to make sure rental owners are properly paying lodging-related taxes.

Earlier this year, county officials tapped an Austin-based company to help them enforce and collect hotel occupancy taxes - often called “HOT” taxes - which are largely used to promote more tourism to the region by way of the tourism council’s marketing efforts.

In the new survey, researchers also found that the more than 518,000 people who flocked to Big Bend last year, a near-record number, spent an estimated $191.6 million in Brewster County that year.

The report was not purely an academic endeavor. Rather, the survey results are meant to help local officials fine-tune their tourism pitch to visitors.

“The number of visitors to the Big Bend area from Texas, the rest of the U.S. and internationally keeps growing, and it’s important to know where and how to best focus our marketing efforts,” Robert Alvarez, Executive Director of the Brewster County Tourism Council, said in a statement.

Some of the report’s findings about why people are drawn to the Big Bend are perhaps obvious to those already familiar with the region - hiking, stargazing and “driving for pleasure” were among the top activities survey respondents said they participated in while in the area. But the survey results did shed new light on the trend of people discovering the park for the first time.

Sara Allen Colando, a county commissioner who represents the Terlingua and Big Bend area, said in an email that while she didn’t see anything particularly surprising in the survey results, a “standout data point” was stargazing ranking high among the most popular activities survey respondents said they engaged in.

“We've been saying for years now that our starry skies are a hugely important part of the Big Bend experience, and we have good data to back that up,” Colando said. “I hope this will strengthen our efforts to protect the night skies and educate newcomers.”

Last year, the greater Big Bend region was named an International Dark Sky Reserve, a designation that supporters had said would help boost tourism to the region.

As with similar surveys conducted in years past, the Texas A&M researchers found that “lack of time was a consistent barrier to participation in activities” for visitors in 2022.

“River-related activities were the most reported activities that visitors wanted to engage in but were not able to during their trip,” the report stated. “Beyond time constraints, the water levels of the Rio Grande continue to be a barrier to participation.”

The report also found that compared to about a decade ago, an increasing number of Big Bend visitors are now traveling to the park via Highway 118 from Fort Davis, which the survey described as a “growing entryway for visitors.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.