McDowell Sonoran

Scottsdale’s natural resources like the McDowell Sonoran are a major draw for

tourists who visit the city.

Scottsdale is known around the world for its golf courses, fine dining and nightlife, but the city’s abundant natural attractions have also been a boon for the local economy.

With that in mind, city officials and their partners in recent years have made a major effort to promote sustainable tourism, which focuses on preserving Scottsdale’s natural environment.   

“We’re very mindful of the fact that we’re in such a delicate natural environment, the Sonoran Desert, and so our whole brand that we’re promoting is really about the desert and the beauty of the desert,” said Stephanie Pressler, director of community affairs for Experience Scottsdale, the organization contracted by the city to operate as its tourism bureau.

According to a 2020 visitor report conducted by the City of Scottsdale and tourism research consultancy Longwoods International, Scottsdale hosted about 4.7 million domestic overnight visitors in 2019 along with 1.7 million international overnight visitors and 4.6 million domestic day trip visitors. 

The local spending of these visitors accounted for an annual economic impact of $3.3 billion in Scottsdale.

But, before they visit local restaurants, art galleries and other hot spots, many visitors take a trek to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the over 35,000 acres of city-owned mountains, trails and open space used for horseback riding, biking, hiking and climbing.

Scottsdale residents have voted in favor of sales tax increases on several occasions over the past 25 years to fund land acquisitions to create the Preserve, which is now one of the largest urban preserves in the country.

Pressler said that when it comes to promoting tourism, their main focus is protecting the natural environment. For this reason, the city is more concerned with the quality of the visitors rather than just the numbers.

“For a lot of travelers these days, sustainability is so important to them and when they go and visit a place, they don’t want to have a harmful impact,” said Pressler. 

“When we’re promoting tourism, we’re really targeting those valuable visitors, really affluent visitors throughout the U.S. and the world, inviting them to come and experience Scottsdale. We want quality more than quantity just so we are able to help protect that desert environment that we’re in.”

According to Justin Owen, the CEO of McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, Scottsdale is unique, noting cities can’t generate enough revenue to support a large-scale conservancy. Scottsdale can solely because of the enormous revenue the city generates from tourism. 

“Scottsdale is on the forefront of sustainability and tourism and why they’re the only city that’s been able to do this on such a scale is because of tourism,” he said. “Because over 40 percent of Scottsdale’s tax revenue comes from nonresidents, the ability for Scottsdale to have a thriving tourism enterprise has allowed the city to be able to preserve this much land. If it weren’t for sustainable tourism, the preserve wouldn’t be possible.”

Owens said sustainability and continued research on the Sonoran Desert are crucial to everything they do. 

“Since we are a conservation nonprofit, sustainability is every part of what we do,” he said. “It is in our mission to be able to advance natural open space through all of our programs as well, to create an environment that is sustainable for future generations.”

The conservancy places emphasis on caring for the environment and encouraging others to do the same. 

Owen said one of the primary missions of the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is to teach people about the direct and indirect impact they have on the environment and promote stewardship.

“The model that we work with within the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the perfect stewardship model of not only caring for something for the future, but caring for something you don’t own,” Owen said. “So taking that passion for caring for the environment and caring for our world beyond personal benefit.”

That attitude extends outside of the Preserve to other tourism-based businesses in Scottsdale.

“We’re promoting all these hotels and resorts that really have had a long time commitment to sustainability and green practices,” Pressler said.

The CIELO, a restaurant that opened at the ADERO resort in 2020, has new energy-efficient A/C units, lighting and appliances. 

The restaurant also created a Trailblazer cocktail to continue raising funds for sustainability efforts like the trails that the TrailBlazer local nonprofit created. The two trails were created on-site and also included removing any alien plant species helping to return the land to its natural state. 

Snooze, a Valley breakfast chain with two locations in Scottsdale, is another restaurant that puts sustainability at the core of its operations. Its recycling and composting programs keep 90 percent of its waste out of landfills. 

According to Snooze spokeswoman Becky Fairchild, the restaurant offers opportunities for sustainability education and engagement to employees and ensures that all ingredients are responsibly sourced.

“Every ingredient that goes into the food and beverages we serve has its own impact on the planet and our communities, from how it’s grown, to how it’s produced, packaged, transported and more,” she said.

It’s not just restaurants that are shifting to more sustainable practices.  

The TPC Scottsdale Golf Club has made sustainability an important part of its business plan for the past eight years. 

It is home to two championship courses, the Stadium Course and the Champions Course, and the largest attended golf tournament in the world, the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Andy Silcox, a first assistant golf pro at TPC, said that there are a few challenges and constraints that come with running a golf course like TPC. 

“I’m not as much of an expert on this subject but water is another challenge, the amount of water and the amount of square footage and acreage of turf we have, at the Stadium Course especially, so there are obviously constraints as to what we can use and what we have in our budget,” said Silcox.

Despite the challenges, Silcox said that the PGA TOUR continues to help facilitate updates and improvements in green practices and sustainability models for each course.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open – TPC’s premier event – has been recognized as the largest zero waste sporting event in the world. 

The tournament vendors, PGA tour and other partnerships help the Waste Management Phoenix Open lead efforts to divert 100 percent of waste from landfills.

In 2019, workers collected 229 tons of compostable material alone at the tournament, diverting 99.4 percent of waste through recycling, composting, reuse, donation or conversion to energy.

The same year, the tournament’s vendors captured 6,679 gallons of gray water, relatively clean used water from devices like sinks that can be used to water grass.

The tournament also included educational opportunities to teach attendees how to recycle correctly to combat frequent contamination of residential recycling by residents who unknowingly mix their recyclables with non-recyclable materials.