Leavenworth, the Bavarian-style alpine village tucked into the Central Cascades, is renowned for a few things: gorgeous scenery, mountain hikes, buildings that appear to have been airlifted from a German postcard, its Christmas lights and its Oktoberfest.
It has long thrived on tourism: According to a 2021 report from the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, the town has a population of 2,000 but a total hotel occupancy capacity of 4,288. According to the city’s 2021-2022 budget, annual lodging tax income is expected to make up around 10% of the city’s revenues, with sales tax making up another 10%.
The town has seen strong and steady growth in tourism, the Chamber says, particularly on weekends during its Christmas lights and Oktoberfest events — that slow-burn overcrowding problem has been accelerated by pandemic-era social-distancing concerns. In response, Leavenworth has decided to restructure those two festivals, taking the emphasis off big weekend climaxes and spreading events throughout the week. For Oktoberfest, that recently involved the city switching producers from Projekt Bayern — which had run the festival for decades — to SE Productions, which plans to de-emphasize the weekend crush and entice weekday visitors.
That weekend rush, local hoteliers say, has been particularly severe with the Christmas lights events, when the town would hold a ceremony to “flip the switch,” illuminating the scenic village. The Chamber hasn’t kept exact figures but guesses the Saturday-night lights event attracted at least 10,000 people each evening.
“While the Christmas lighting was fun, it became crazy,” said Martin Szuster, who co-owns the Bavarian-style hotel Pension Anna with his wife, Erika. “Busloads of people at the peak of the lighting, thousands of people in town, you can’t eat because you can’t find room in a restaurant. I kid you not, all the public bathrooms are full so you can’t use the toilet, and you’re like a sardine waiting for this event. Frankly, I think people weren’t having as much fun.”
Instead, beginning this year, for the month of December, Leavenworth will attempt to reduce crowds on weekends and entice weekday visitors with events every day: appearances by Santa and Mrs. Claus, carolers and lights all week long without a big “flip the switch” moment.
“We hope it changes the dynamic so people can enjoy Leavenworth in the most fulfilling way,” said Jesse Boyd, managing owner of the Bavarian Lodge and president of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce. “But with new events, you don’t know for two or three years whether it was the right decision or not.”
The pandemic took its toll on tourism in 2020, Szuster and Boyd said, but most businesses adjusted as
“This year was a little crazy and what we lost last year, we made up with extra revenue,” Szuster said. “Leavenworth is a weird little town. Historically, it’s been very resilient to recessions and economic crises.”
He can’t pinpoint exactly why the town keeps becoming more popular but suspects the growth of Seattle — and its population of relatively high-income earners — has something to do with it, as well as the internet’s ability to lionize picturesque places at lightning speed.
“Blame Instagram,” he said. “People took beautiful photos, so the Colchuck Lake hike became a thing to do, and hiking through the Enchantments. People discover that online and want to see it for themselves.”
While SE Productions will produce its first Oktoberfest for the town in 2022, the nonprofit Projekt Bayern will move its Oktoberfest to Toyota Town Center, a multiuse arena in Wenatchee.
“It’s a temporary thing until we vote this mayor and city council out in Leavenworth,” said Steve Lord, chair of Projekt Bayern’s Oktoberfest. “The city is trying to steal an event that we built. Leavenworth changed a lot during COVID — a lot of people moved there and built million-dollar houses, they’re anti-tourism and they want to downsize the event.”
Boyd, the Chamber president, strongly disagrees, arguing that changing the form of the festivals to attract visitors throughout the week does not indicate a divestment from tourism as a whole.
“Leavenworth is not changing, not moving away from festivals,” he said. “Leavenworth is a tourism economy — a beautiful Bavarian village set in the Cascades. That’s not going to change.”