Whose Sedona Is It, Anyway?

The Arizona City—Long Defined by Visitors and Outsiders—Is Fighting Over the ‘Right Kind’ of Tourist

During the pandemic, the town of Sedona, Arizona, decided to stop advertising in luxury travel magazines—not least because residents were sick of traffic. But the experiment didn’t go as planned, writes author Tom Zoellner. Courtesy of Anthony Melone/Unsplash.

You’d think that a town dependent on tourist dollars could never stop advertising itself. But in Sedona, Arizona, as wealthy residents’ weariness of riffraff jamming up their roads sparked a bitter rift over what constitutes “the right kind” of visitors, that’s just what has happened.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sedona’s city government and chamber made a joint agreement to quit advertising the town in glossy national travel magazines and doing social media posts targeted at rich people, reasoning that such money would be wasted during an international shutdown. The pause sparked infighting, which then escalated: In April 2023, the chamber of commerce’s board voted to end its tourism contract with the city over the council’s refusal to fund “destination marketing.”

The experiment has not yielded the expected serenity.

Instead, Sedona has filled up with “wayward and lost tourists,” in the words of Christopher Fox Graham, managing editor of the Sedona Red Rock News. Without such destination marketing, he wrote, “Sedona has been beset by day travelers from Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas, and Californian overnighters who roll into town with little guidance on where to stay, eat, shop or explore other than what they saw on Instagram.”

One of the reasons for these visitors from nearby cities—and one of the headaches for the many retirees who would prefer that Sedona be more “Slo-dona”—is that more than a third of the city’s homes are used for short-term rentals. That fact led the city council to require, starting in 2022, an annual permit for lessors and mandatory sex offender checks on renters to prevent, in the words of one council member, “orgies in nice areas.”

Since then, the city of Sedona has also offered those landlords who can be persuaded to rent their homes to a local are offered a $10,000 subsidy. But few who work the low-wage tourism jobs can afford to live in Sedona. Neither can young families, which is why there is only a single elementary school, with declining enrollment, in a town of over 11,000 people. “Basically, people feel they live in a gas station,” observed resident Sean Dedalus.

The hard irony of the current controversy is that Sedona has long been defined by visitors and other outsiders. Sedona occupies a valley that had been a home for the Yavapai-Apache people for seven centuries before the U.S. Cavalry chased them away in the 1870s as a side campaign to the Apache Wars. When early settler J.J. Thompson arrived in Oak Creek Canyon, he found irrigation and fruit orchards that had been tended by people who packed up and left in a hurry. He simply took them over for himself, joined by later neighbors Manuel Chavez and the dapper storekeeper T. Carl Schnebly, who named the post office for his wife, Sedona.

The hard irony of the current controversy is that Sedona has long been defined by visitors and other outsiders.

The name Sedona gained cultural currency in the golden age of the pulp Western, after Zane Gray set his 1922 novel The Call of the Canyon in nearby Oak Creek Canyon, inspiring a quickie silent movie. Hollywood soon found the wine-colored spires and juniper trees just as rawbone-pretty as Monument Valley, not to mention closer to California. John Wayne came to Sedona to film Angel and the Badman, leaving behind a movie set that became a subdivision where all the streets were named after famous oat operas: Broken Arrow, Copper Canyon, The Last Wagon, Shotgun, and Johnny Guitar. Elvis Presley came here, too, to shoot what is widely regarded as the worst movie he starred in: 1968’s Stay Away, Joe, about a lascivious Native American named Joe Lightcloud who returns to the reservation in a Cadillac and rides a bull at the rodeo to redeem himself from bad behavior.

In the late 1950s, Sedona really found its tourism sweet spot. A real estate agent named Mary Lou Keller founded the Church of Light in her office and proclaimed the working-class ranching town a global center of spiritual energy. She may have been making this up to attract homebuyers who favored crystals and tarot cards, but the seekers arrived in force, turning Sedona into a cauldron of the New Thought movement that had gripped Los Angeles in the 1920s. One of Keller’s most important gurus was Manly Palmer Hall, who preached at L.A.’s occult Church of the People.

This influx of what conservative locals called “moon puppies” and “foo-foo woo woos,” led to Sedona’s first tourism crisis. Lisa Schnebly Heidinger, a great-granddaughter of Sedona Schnebly, recalled the day in the late 1960s when her grandfather came home for dinner to announce that a “bunch of hippies in their love van” had shown up at the Union 76 service station for repairs. He had gruffly sent them over to nearby Cottonwood, not knowing he was hustling away a future cornerstone of the local economy.

Today an estimated two hundred small businesses in Sedona cater to visitors intrigued with the theology of earth energy: bookstores, crystal emporiums, sweat lodge retreats, and other enterprises that come and go like sunbeams. One chamber of commerce survey found that 37% of visitors come for some kind of spiritual experience.

Often, they visit spots in the surrounding National Forests that have been proclaimed as “vortexes” of energy. Forest Service employees are constantly breaking up unauthorized rock arrangements that the metaphysical pilgrims say are “medicine wheels.” And in 2009, an Anglo businessman and “spiritual warrior” named James Arthur Ray held a sweat lodge ceremony that led to three deaths from the excessive heat. He served two years in prison for negligent homicide, and Native critics derided him as a “plastic shaman.”

Whatever their motivation, people keep catching what local realtors call “the red rock fever” and keep coming to Sedona—and adding to the traffic that kicked off the tourism debate in the first place. During the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, spiritual flaneurs and second home seekers from Phoenix and Los Angeles flooded into the new subdivisions blossoming off the two main highways. A lack of coherent planning meant that interconnecting roads were never created and the legacy is a persistent traffic problem on Highway 89A, whose main junction, “The Y,” is often despairingly referred to as the “negative vortex.”

Recently, off-highway vehicles—most piloted by tourists—have added to the mess on 89A. Sedona mayor Scott Jablow, a former police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, sought to ban these dune buggies from paved highways, but the idea couldn’t withstand the opposition of rental companies serving out-of-towners hungry for desert adventures or Republican state legislators calling for small government.

Jablow himself fought off a 2022 electoral challenge from Samaire Armstrong, an actor on The O.C. turned anti-masking Republican who had called Black Lives Matter “a one-billion-dollar domestic terrorist organization.” Sedona’s liberals breathed a sigh of relief when the ex-cop won. It helped that Jablow wanted to slow down the town’s popularity. “We have too many tourists. Period,” he said before his election.

His victory seemed less of a commentary on the national culture wars and some on something closer to home: a desire to yank back the welcome mat to the middle-class in Arizona’s capital of luxury tourism. For those who commute here by private jet, this might seem an easy decision. But for those whose monthly income depends on a steady flow of visitors to buy ice cream, tarot cards, and sunscreen, the town’s identity—and price of admission—is at stake. Nature’s artwork is not supposed to have a price tag, but commodifying the rocks is an old Sedona custom. What we’re seeing is no revolutionary moment, but merely a haggle over the amount charged.


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