Big Sur is fed up with selfie tourism. Here is its new plan to transform travel in the region
Gregory Thomas | The San Francisco Chronicle on January 2, 2021
Ask anyone who lives in Big Sur about the changes the region has seen in the past five years and they will tell you horror stories about photo-obsessed -selfie tourists- clogging Highway 1 at Bixby Creek Bridge parking in the narrow roadway, causing hours-long traffic delays and dangerously posing for pictures on the landmark bridge.
It is a goat rodeo, says Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur — especially on holiday weekends, he says. A resident of the famously beautiful region for 31 years, he has witnessed an alarming regression in visitor behavior since the advent of camera phones and Instagram. Now the landscape is just a backdrop for peoples antics, Kronlund says.
Those antics, he and others say, include urination along Highway 1, litter at popular overlooks, trampled vegetation and other issues that have fueled local ire toward outsiders. Talk of more strictly managing access by travelers to the remote 70-mile stretch of coast has been percolating for many years. But now Kronlunds group, which has worked to protect Big Sur for nearly 60 years, has produced a plan that promises to change the Big Sur experience considerably, and potentially create a model for other high-tourism areas in California.
On Dec. 1, 2020 the Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to accept a 120-plus-page plan from Kronlunds group outlining short and long-term measures for controlling the flow of the millions of tourists who visit Big Sur each year. They include:
Butch Kronlund, executive director of community association of Big Sur, is trying to keep tourism under control.
It may be years before these changes take effect, but the countys approval signals that a transformation could be on its way. If the vision comes to fruition, it will fundamentally change the experience for people who expect to be able to pull over wherever they wish. Those hoping to see the most popular spots would have to plan their trips in advance rather than show up at their leisure.
Advocates hope the plan can save one of the countrys premium stretches of undeveloped coastline from falling victim to its global appeal. I think theres not one of us here who is not conscious of the responsibility that we have to ensure that we keep Big Sur as it is, Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams, who represents the region, told fellow supervisors earlier this month. I feel that it is an absolute sacred ground in so many ways that we have a responsibility to protect.
Tourism is the dominant industry on the Monterey Peninsula. Visitors generate $3 billion annually, according to the county tourism bureau. Big Sur, a vast unincorporated area spanning a winding stretch of coast and accessible only via Highway 1, is almost wholly dependent on road-tripping visitors who come to hike, sight see and relax.
Exactly how many tourists pass through Big Sur each year is not known; rough estimates range from 4.5 million to 7 million, an amount that would put Big Sur ahead of Yosemite and Grand Canyon national parks in annual visitor-ship.
Two years ago (2018), -Overtourism is killing Big Sur- was scrawled in yellow paint across the Bixby Creek Bridge parking lot. A banner with a similar message was hung from the concrete span.
1. Establishing an optional day pass drivers could buy online to access the various parks and parking lots around the region. Proceeds from pass sales would fund local conservation groups.
2. A year-long moratorium on parking at Bixby Creek Bridge and potentially closing off parking near the bridge permanently.
3. Requiring advance parking reservations at high-profile spots, including the areas most popular beach, Pfeiffer Beach.
4. More frequent highway patrols and zealous enforcement of traffic laws.
5. A ban on dispersed camping and campfires in Los Padres National Forest, which stretches across the mountainous area along much of Big Surs eastern edge.
Gregory Thomas is The San Francisco Chronicles editor of lifestyle and outdoors.