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.
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.
The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and McKenzie & Company very recently released a detailed analysis of overcrowding at popular tourism sites and destinations. The intended primary audience appears to be destinations, but it has much wider application within the industry. In-bound tour companies also have responsibilities for ensuring the sustainability of their operations.
I’m deeply concerned about the issue of overcrowding. I’m seeing its impacts on some of our country’s most loved national and provincial parks. Take the photo above for example. This is Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park during a normal summer day. Notice the long line of people waiting to grab a quick look at the falls close up from within a small cavern. Below, the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre teems with swarms of people during the peak season.
These are but two examples of overcrowding I observed in 2016 while leading trips in Banff and Jasper National Parks. Knowing that these parks would be overrun this past summer, I avoided them completely. Giving free admission to the national parks to mark Canada’s 150th made a bad situation worse.
The Problem of Overcrowding
The problem of overcrowding isn’t new. Park advocates, like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, have been sounding the alarm about it since the 1960s. What is new is the speed and scale of the growth in numbers.
The four mountain national parks of Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay have seen annual growth rates of about 5% over the past few years. Doesn’t sound like much perhaps, until you convert that to numbers of visitors. In 2016, the Canada’s national parks received nearly 15.5 million visitors. The growth rate for 2017 to 2018 has not been released yet, but if it holds at 5% that would mean another 775,000 visitors. Astounding to think about.
As the WTTC notes in the executive summary of its report, “…some destinations are in danger of being loved to death, before adding “After all, it’s hard to maintain a sense of wonder before Michelangelo’s Pieta when elbow to elbow with strangers.”
As I said above, same holds true for Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake or Emerald Lake as well as several other sites in the four mountain parks. It also holds true for many of the other parks and historic sites that Parks Canada manages.
Impacts of Overcrowding
In addition to a degraded experience, the WTTC found that overcrowding led to alienated local residents, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage. Their analysis also reveals that “overcrowding is easier to prevent than it is to recover from.”
Best Practices for Sustainable Tourism Development
“Good tourism management practices and stringent planning are key to the sustainable development of tourism,” they argue, before presenting four best practices:
Build a comprehensive fact base and update it regularly;
Conduct rigorous, long-term planning to encourage sustainable growth;
Involve all sections of society – commercial, public and social; and
Find new sources of funding.
I have profound trouble with the belief in sustainable growth. Too much of the time, growth is defined in narrow economic terms. More guests = more revenue = more profits = more re-invested into growth = more capacity to pump through more paying customers. This kind of growth generates significant negative impacts that undercut sustainability.
Throughout the report, I perceive a struggle within the Council. On the one hand, they want to warn that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Yet on the other hand, they unwittingly, perhaps, perpetuate the belief that there’s never enough.
For growth to be sustainable over the long-term, it must be defined in broader terms akin to the triple bottom line approach. Full cost accounting should also be considered prior to any proposed expansion of capacity.
Techniques for Dealing with Overcrowding
What are some of the practical approaches to overcrowding destinations could take? The WTTC suggests these possibilities:
Smooth visitors over time;
Spread visitors across sites;
Adjust pricing to balance supply and demand;
Regulate accommodation supply; and
Limit access and activities.
These techniques have been around for several decades. They can be very effective in reducing overcrowding, if they’re applied within the framework of the best practices outlined above. But even under ideal circumstances, significant challenges confront the application of these tools.
Challenges to Managing Overcrowding
For example, it’s all fine and well to want to attract more tourists in the off-season, but inclement weather (perceived or actual) can be a powerful deterrent. To meet this challenge, destinations and tour operators must be imaginative and pragmatic. Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, is often taken as a good case study. Years back, the town and nearby resorts were nearly dead during the cold, blustery, and rainy winter months. Then, someone came up with a brilliant idea: market the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of the powerful storms that lash this stretch of the coast. Since then, storm-watching has become a major tourism draw.
Recently a US-based tour company hired me to assist with the re-development of their Canadian Rockies excursion. I enjoyed doing so as I had the opportunity to encourage them to consider less crowded and equally attractive sites. Spreading visitors across sites like this can really help to take pressure off overcrowded sites. It also gives lessor known destinations a greater share of the economic benefits of tourism.
Playing with pricing can be tricky business. As the WTTC noted: “But while increasing the costs of visiting a destination or site is likely to limit the number of visitors, it also raises considerations of elitism and the ability of domestic tourists to access their own heritage.”
In the past, regulating the supply of accommodation has been an effective way to managing growth. The explosive growth in home-sharing options, however, has been a game-changer. Short-term rentals now threaten to destabilize housing stock in some destinations. While this tactic increase supply to accommodate more visitors, it can also alienate locals and make housing for seasonal staff nearly impossible to afford. Tofino is one destination I know of that struggles with this challenge.
Limiting access and activities can be a highly controversial and politically charged approach. It challenges a largely un-examined sense of entitlement held widely. Travel, for many, is taken as a basic right. As a result, limits are usually very reluctantly applied. Additionally, limits must be enforced to be effective. Some destinations simply lack the capacity however.
The WTTC concludes that “each destination will need to identify the actions that address their specific challenges from overcrowding.” To meet the challenges, they advocate taking “an integrated approach” to using the five techniques for mitigating overcrowding.
Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries. As such, it makes a huge contribution to regional and national economies. But if not managed carefully, this growth and the overcrowding that comes with it undermines the long-term sustainability of the industry. When this happens, everyone loses.
As the WTTC concludes: “Indeed, companies must take responsibility for destination stewardship and engage with governments to facilitate and encourage sustainable tourism planning rather than waiting on the sidelines for others to effect change.”
“Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations” by the World Travel and Tourism Council and McKinsey & Company merits as a must-read for everyone in the travel and tourism industry. Despite ambiguity around the notion of sustainable growth, the report presents important results and insights drawn from in-depth research.