New report details post-pandemic trends in tourism to Big Bend National Park

The view from Mel’s Place, an AirBNB in Terlingua –– one of many that have popped up in recent years as tourism has boomed. Photo courtesy of Melanie Phillips.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — Researchers from the Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M recently released a report on trends in tourism to Big Bend National Park. The final write-up compiled surveys from park visitors to follow up on similar reports released in 2013 and 2004, helping local governments and tourism industry professionals understand how the market has changed over the past two decades. 

Perhaps more importantly, the report shows how trends have changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. During widespread lockdowns in 2020, many Americans took to the outdoors, booking trips to scenic destinations and investing in RVs, campers and gear for activities like climbing and skiing in record numbers

Big Bend National Park was no exception — between 2019 and 2021, visitation rose 25%. The regional economy has experienced growing pains, navigating issues like tax collection in the short-term rental industry, property valuation increases throughout the region and providing adequate wages and housing for service industry professionals. 

To create their report, the Texas A&M team distributed surveys to 848 visitors on-site and attempted to follow up with each subject via email — to which 255 people responded. The team then traced patterns based on demographic information and details provided about each person’s trip.

The researchers found that the majority of visitors to Big Bend National Park are Texans who drove to the park from within state lines. Distant second and third states of origin were Florida and California. The survey’s top international respondents hailed from Australia, France and Mexico. 

One of the most significant demographic shifts the researchers identified was in the age of folks who decide to make a trek to Big Bend. The number of Millennial tourists (aged 31-40) doubled between 2012 and 2022. Folks on the cusp between the Gen X and Boomer generations between the ages of 51 and 60 dropped steeply; visitors over 61 showed a gradual rise. 

The survey describes the pool of respondents as “overwhelmingly white” — with the caveat that this year’s results were less ethnically homogenous than in years past. The proportion of white visitors dropped 16% over the course of 10 years, with small but noticeable growth in the number of Indigenous, Asian and Black visitors.

Income seemed to be a more reliable indicator — 58.8% of visitors came from households netting over $100,000 a year. Just 2.5% of visitors represented households below $25,000 a year, which make up around a third of the general U.S. population. 

The researchers were also able to assign numbers to a phenomenon that locals have anecdotally observed for years — people who loved their first visit to Big Bend keep coming back. Expressed visually, the number of times visitors have returned to the park form ripples rather than a stark downward curve: while the majority of visitors are first and second-time visitors (roughly 56% and 15%), another 8% of visitors had returned to the park between 10 and 30 times. 

In light of their findings, the report recommended that the Brewster County Tourism Council make creating positive first-impressions a priority. “Ensuring local providers and communities recognize that most visitors are likely first-time visitors can be critical in developing long-term returning visitors, and therefore returning customers for their businesses,” the report summary reads. (The Brewster County Tourism Council did not return a request for comment).

Melanie Phillips — who runs an AirBNB called Mel’s Place in Terlingua — has observed many of these phenomenons first-hand. In her five years overseeing a campground and cabin rental just minutes from the park entrance, she’s had a front row seat to the rapidly evolving local tourism industry. 

Many of Phillips’ guests are first-time Millennial campers — some so new to camping that she’s been asked to help set up tents. She’s taken a preventative approach, sending guests who book spots at the campground tons of reading material so they can safely enjoy one of the nation’s most remote Park Service units.

For extra credit, she recommends first-timers read Laurence Parent’s Death in Big Bend, driving home the point that underestimating the desert can be fatal. “I really just bombard them with information,” she said. “So many are just not prepared for this environment.”

As a result, she’s seen tents tumble across the desert in the wind and city slickers unwilling to brave the short dirt road to their rentals. She tries to intervene as little as possible while still keeping a watchful eye. “I think even if they have a disaster at their campsite, it’s a learning experience,” she said. 

One trend that Phillips has observed that’s perhaps too abstract for numbers: many folks come to the Big Bend looking for something, but they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for. “So people just don’t know where they’re going — they haven’t done any research,” she said. “But they get here and they’re wowed. Ninety-five percent are wowed in a good way — and then there’s 5% that go, ‘Oh my god, I hate this.’”