For the past two years, a remarkable conference has taken place in Victoria, BC during the cold wet days of late January. It is completely focused on the opportunities for and challenges to sustainable travel and tourism in Canada and around the world. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only conference of its kind in Canada.
Over the past two years, the Songhees Nation has been slowly developing a variety of aboriginal tourism initiatives. They are part of the Nation’s economic development strategy. At their Wellness Centre located in Esquimalt, tourists will find a gallery, gift shop and cafe.
The Centre is also serves as home base for Songhees Seafood and Steam – a catering service. During the summer, the catering service includes a food truck that stands out from the crowd with its brightly coloured panels of aboriginal design.
From the lower level of the historic Steamship Terminal on Victoria’s Inner Harbour, the Songhees Nation offers a variety of tours, including by canoe, bus or walking. Whether a visitor is interested in booking a tour, it is worthwhile to drop by to check out the gallery and gift shop and to view several displays and exhibits.
The Songhees Nation is taking great pride in sharing their history and culture with tourists who come to Victoria. Their connection to the area extends back thousands of years.
Canada is recognized as a world-leader in aboriginal tourism and the demand for these experiences is growing rapidly. The Songhees Nation appears to be well-positioned to benefit from this trend.
This conference turned out to be one of the most stimulating and important ones I’ve ever attended. For one thing, it was the first of its kind in Canada. Up to now, there had been no deep conversation on the topic of sustainability within the industry. The founding partners believed that the time had come to make it happen.
“The tourism industry has the opportunity to impact global change and lead the world in a new age of environmental and social responsibility,” they declared on the conference website. Wow! That statement blew my socks off. It really sets the bar high for the industry. I was keen to hear how they responded to the challenge.
As if this ideal wasn’t remarkable enough, so were the organizers, volunteers, speakers and participants. Keith Henry, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Canada and Dr. Rachel Dodds, Professor in the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University served as co-chairs. The Honourable Bardish Chagger, Minister of Small Business and Tourism and Leader of the Government in the House of Commons kicked off the conference. Elizabeth May, the Leader of the Green Party of Canada, provided a candid assessment of efforts by the current federal government to support and promote green tourism. Mayor Lisa Helps gave an overview of how Victoria was striving for sustainable tourism. Plus the organizers did a splendid job of recruiting excellent speakers for plenaries and panel sessions.
About 170 or so people convened for the three day event. Of them, I only knew a few. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and getting to know as many of the others as I could. Most of the participants represented small to medium sized tour companies. While the majority operated in BC and Alberta, a few came from Yukon, NWT, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. One of the speakers flew in from Costa Rica while another came from Washington, DC. There may have been others that I’ve missed.
What made all these people remarkable was their obvious passion and commitment to advancing sustainability not just within their operations but also within the broader industry. Quite frankly, they were inspiring and fun to be around. Their enthusiasm was contagious. I also admired their willingness to grapple with difficult and complex issues, such as how best to respond to the rising tide of Chinese tourists, or what to do about the overcrowding happening in places like Tofino or Banff National Park.
Conference themes included: indigenous tourism, climate change, certification, waste reduction, low-emissions travel, and labour shortage.
The following are a few of the notes I took during the conference.
“Canada leads the world in Indigenous tourism.” Keith Henry, CEO of Indigenous Tourism Canada and IMPACT conference co-chair.
“If this is tourism season, why can’t we hunt them?” Graffiti seen in Barcelona and described by Elizabeth Becker, author and journalist.
“As China goes, so goes the rest of the world.” Elizabeth Becker speaking on the impact of Chinese tourism.
“Tourism is extremely vulnerable to climate change. We’re seeing the destruction of destinations. Extreme weather events are having significant impacts on air travel. In time, we may be forced to give up discretionary travel.” Robert Sandford.
“Students and youth are no longer coming to Dawson for summer jobs in tourism. Many used to camp because of the short supply of housing. But with climate change, we’re having more rain.” Jackie Olsen, CEO of Klondike Visitor Association.
“The only metric that has matter is numbers. Tourism has been the business of more, more, more. The focus should be on better, not more.” Greg Klassen, Principal of Twenty31.
“The problem in Banff is vehicle management. The actual number of visitors is down 18% from the highs of mid-1990s. But what’s way up is the number of private vehicles.” Darren Reeder, Executive Director of the Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association.
Take-Aways from the Conference
Now for some of the take-away messages/questions:
Unprecedented political engagement in sustainable tourism. Can we hold onto this momentum and is this a pivot point?
Green Hushing? Are we keeping our best secrets too quiet?
We need to ban volume numbers from our vocabulary, or at least put them into context with other objectives.
Its no longer about “sustainable tourism”; its about restorative tourism. How can tourism make things better.
Better to take small steps now and not wait for government to lead the way.
A business must be financially viable to focus on sustainability
Tourism can be a catalyst for societal good.
Sustainable tourism can save the world, one destination at a time.
All in all, an awesome conference with plans to repeat it annually going forward. It will be held roughly the same time in January next year and in Victoria again. I encourage anyone with an interest in supporting the advancement of sustainable tourism in Canada and abroad to attend.