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Big Bend National Park saw plateau in visitors last year, new data show

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
A view of the entrance to Big Bend National Park in 2019.

The number of people visiting Big Bend National Park held steady in 2023 after reaching a record high during the pandemic, new data show.

According to preliminary year-end numbers released by the National Park Service, nearly 512,000 people made the trek to the park last year. That’s down less than one percent from the year before, when visitors totaled just under 517,000. But both years show a slowdown from 2021, when visitation hit an all-time peak of 581,000.

Rick Gupman, deputy superintendent of the national park, said he wasn’t surprised to see the numbers stagnate this year.

“We're still readjusting to normal visitation from those couple of years of just incredibly high visitation directly from COVID,” he said. “If you take out the COVID bump, which is a massive, massive spike in visitation for us, it's still on a continual upward trajectory.”

In recent years, Big Bend’s popularity has grown hand in hand with the region’s tourism industry. Gupman said while the park’s campgrounds are generally full through the busy season, the recent boom in Airbnbs and other short-term rentals in South Brewster County has made the park accessible to a much bigger population.

“I think as long as there's a capacity outside the park, that there'll be an increase in visitation inside the park,” he said.

The actual number of short-term rentals in the region has proven difficult to track, with properties listed across multiple platforms. According to data shared with Marfa Public Radio by one analytics firm, AirDNA, the number of short-term rentals listed in Brewster County continued to grow steadily in 2023 — though occupancy decreased slightly from the year before.

County Commissioner Sara Allen Colando said that’s on track with what she’s seen in the Terlingua area.

“From people I've talked to who run Airbnbs and other nightly rentals, they seem to be not as full. They're still full during the high seasons, the holiday weekends, but they have more downtime in between those,” she said. “It seems like we went crazy, off-the-charts popular during the pandemic, and that lasted quite a while, but I think we're going back down to a more normal trend of high seasons and off seasons.”

Hannah Gentiles for Marfa Public Radio
The desert landscape of Terlingua, Texas.

Robert Alvarez, director of Brewster County Tourism Council, said he thinks the region is also reaching the limits of its infrastructure for tourism. Without new construction, he said, there aren’t many more places in Terlingua and Study Butte to convert to short-term rentals. And he thinks the hospitality labor force is hitting its capacity.

“Ten thousand people live here, and it's the largest county in Texas. There's just no more folks to hire,” he said.

Alvarez said he feels good about current tourism levels, calling the 2023 park visitor numbers “an intentional plateau.”

“We wanted to hit half a million, we hit half a million in 2021. And, yeah, that's where we want to be,” he said. “I've had many hoteliers, restaurateurs, outfitters, et cetera, contact me and say, like, man, we're good. You know, don't let it go down. But we don't know how much more we can handle.”

This year, Alvarez said, local officials are making an effort to target their marketing efforts, rather than trying to boost tourism at all costs.

“I'm sure some folks out there would say, no, we need two million people so we can make more money. But in the long term, we want to be good stewards of this land that we have here,” he said. “When it comes right down to it, this amount of visitation is sustainable.”

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.