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Managing tourism in Jim Thorpe

Tourists ride in a horse and carriage along Broadway in Jim Thorpe.
Haley O'Brien
Tourists ride in a horse and carriage along Broadway in Jim Thorpe.

It’s no secret that Jim Thorpe is a popular destination in Northeast Pennsylvania. The hiking and biking trails, train rides, unique shops and historic architecture draw people for day trips and extended stays.

“I think we are at a point, clearly, on specific days and during specific events where there are these indicators of overtourism,” Carbon County Commissioner Chris Lukasevich said.

Residents sometimes struggle to find a parking spot and are frustrated to see a vehicle with an out-of-state license plate in front of their home. Tax dollars are spent to maintain public parks and restrooms. However, visitors leave plenty of cash before they go. The question is: do the benefits outweigh the harms?

“It’s no easy answer,” Kathy Henderson, executive director of the Carbon County Chamber said. “I think we’re missing a true path forward, I think we’re missing a vision for that path forward, and a map for how to get there.”

Community leaders are providing data and their perspectives as they start the conversation about creating a tourism management plan.

Too Much?

Dr. Harold Goodwin is managing director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and has researched and written about the topic extensively. Leaders from local tourism groups joined Goodwin for a virtual discussion, hosted by Commissioner Lukasevich, as they discussed the future of Jim Thorpe.

“If you don't manage it, your community will begin to scapegoat the tourists and that's unhealthy for your tourism economy,” Goodwin said.

He describes overtourism as a concept in which both the locals and visitors feel that the quality of their experience is lesser due to the number of people.

Michael Rivkin is a business owner, part of the Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency (JTTA), and serves on borough council.

“I don’t think we have an argument that we’re seeing that in Jim Thorpe,” he said. “The challenge that we have is that the target that we strive to achieve raises each year.”

While tourism has historically been a main characteristic and economic driver of the borough, the COVID-19 pandemic escalated an interest in staycations and outdoor activities, and social media helped to spread the word.

"Sometimes you can take 45 minutes, or up to an hour, maybe longer to get into the borough on event weekends," Jim Thorpe Police Chief Joe Schatz said.

The addition of passenger trains from Pittston brought more people to patronize businesses. Chief Schatz said they contract with Penn Forest Fire Police to help manage the increase in tourists.

Portable toilets are now available year-round, as opposed to seasonally, Commissioner Lukasevich said. They are paid for by county and hotel tax dollars. In 2020, the county brought in roughly $450,000 gross revenue from the county parking lot, and is now exceeding $1 million.

“Basically, it’s the tourists who are paying for it,” he said. “Maybe 10% of the parking funds actually come from locals.”

Mauch Chunk Lake Park, which primarily sees county residents, is funded largely by parking revenue and the hotel tax. Commissioner Lukasevich says during Fall Foliage weekends, shuttles from the park resulted in a $6,000 revenue.

“This year with our Fall Foliage parking and shuttle service from Mauch Chunk Lake Park, we had a net revenue gain of over $6,000 from those four weekends,” he said. “That goes back into Mauch Chunk Lake Park, and that serves the entire county.”

Roughly 15% of Carbon County jobs are tourism-related, according to data from the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau. That makes up 65% of Carbon County’s labor income.

Goodwin noted that the revenue tourism brings into Jim Thorpe is impressive.

“I don’t doubt that tourism is contributing to the vibrancy and the sense of life,” he said. “But there’s still a question of how profitable it is, really, for the place.”

Goals for 2024

The lack of infrastructure has been a point of contention downtown for years. The county’s need to expand office space has often battled the need to accommodate out-of-towners.

“We’re just kind of focused on parking, parking, parking, and traffic congestion, where we’re just treating a symptom,” Commissioner Lukasevich said. “We’re not looking at or experimenting in all the other areas, where we need to accept the fact that we’re going to fail at times,” he said.

While local leaders agree they communicate and work well together, they’re being encouraged to experiment with the way they’ve been doing things.

"We are in planning stages now to create a couple roundtable subcommittees within our borough here, so that we can combat everything that we're concerned about," Chief Schatz said.

One way to manage it, some suggest, is to spread the people out to surrounding municipalities. Leaders from the Tamaqua Community Partnership say some train enthusiasts made their way out to them when they couldn’t get in to Jim Thorpe this fall.

Rivkin says JTTA’s focus has shifted from promoting the town to providing the right information to equip guests.

“We need to do a better job of outreach to potential visitors, and teach them, educate them to do their homework,” he said. “They need to know that there's X amount of parking, one road in, one road out, X amount of places to stay, X amount of places to eat and drink. So essentially, you must plan ahead.”

Michael Rivkin has traveled the world, visiting 65 countries throughout his life. He settled in Jim Thorpe, where he co-owns the Dolon House Bed and Breakfast.

“We're seeing this all over the world and major tourist attractions, Barcelona, Venice, British heritage sites in the UK, tickets are required. And so it forces someone to do some homework,” he said. “And the reality is, that makes the visitors’ experience infinitely more positive.”

Haley joined the WVIA news team in 2023 as a reporter and host. She grew up in Scranton and studied Broadcast Journalism at Marywood University. Haley has experience reporting in Northeast Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. She enjoys reporting on Pennsylvania history and culture, and video storytelling.

You can email Haley at haleyobrien@wvia.org
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