Tourism: Lessons from the field 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - On Show A tour group meets some local monks in Bagan, Myanmar.
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • On Show A tour group meets some local monks in Bagan, Myanmar.

I've lived in a tourist town some 16 years now, but I don't often feel like a tourist. Although I sometimes feel the sting in needlessly overvalued commodities and the occasional crush of humanity, I also catch my share of breaks as a local, having learned to navigate the where, when and how of both system and landscape to effectively remove myself from the fray when need be. In essence, I do what most people who live and work in ski resorts do: seek to actively be part of the same experience people come here to have while unconsciously adjudging my version to be #authentic and #genuine, and theirs to be a packaged facsimile. Although I am seldom given to pondering this, it is the essential schism in a mountain town or anywhere else where tourism is built around the kind of activity and experience delivered by skiing, mountain biking, climbing or running rivers. The people living and working there are largely selling something otherwise construed as their actual lifestyle.

Most tourism "products" or experiences, however, are not so, and involve disimpassioned folks schilling activities, food, tours, souvenirs and whatever else in a place not created specifically for that purpose but which has nevertheless come to be so for one reason or another. Maybe it's an historical or archaeological attraction like an ancient city or a temple, or it's just a special or beautiful place like a beach or unique geological formation. It doesn't matter; the river of tourism flows through and those who find themselves living on its banks fish vigorously from it. If you're a visitor to such a place (e.g., Venice, Egypt's pyramids) you can see and feel the very palpable angling aimed at you as you float by, and you can often rightly feel exploited by it. But one thing you can't do is resent it. After all, by way of proving the value of the catch, you're here. This is another quandary of the tourism equation: you and others have been lured here for a reason, so someone has a right to make a living from that passage, and, depending on the place, there's a delicate balance involved in how that's done in the most mutually acceptable manner. I more often question this dichotomy on a regular basis as a travel writer sent to experience various destinations, activities and draws, often in the Sea to Sky corridor.

These musings have been fulminating for a while — basically since I left Whistler in mid-November to travel parts of Southeast Asia. I've spent the last four months being a tourist, actively using the tourism infrastructure of tours, guides, transport, hotels, activities and restaurants along with a little self-direction and in situ services like local transportation. It has been an eye opener that made me think daily about tourism in general and in particular the brand used at home. I've witnessed everything from institutionalized mass tourism on a truly industrial scale to places where people are still surprised to see you and unaware tourism is actually taking place. And I've come to some interesting conclusions: the basic competitive nature of commerce meeting the client-turnover demands of tourism can breed both exceptionality and mediocrity for the same reasons; the former requires the latter as a benchmark, but you must accept it all with grace.

What has stood out most is that while exceptionality may sometimes be offered — for instance, a different, less-known viewpoint for a bat cave that sidesteps the one every tuk-tuk driver and his brother takes their clients to nightly — the onus is on the traveller to actively seek these out. Many take up the challenge: it's called "exploring and discovery" and it's at the heart of any good travel experience, whether adventure-driven or more pedestrian in nature. The unique and lesser-known exists everywhere, even in a place like Whistler where there's a giant, well-prescribed tourism footprint. Given this, operators and town leaders should do everything possible to make exploration and self-directed adventure available to people as part of their offerings (Chamonix offers a good example in the ski genre); there are plenty who will pay to do the usual, but increasing numbers who are happy to pay a token fee to be able to strike out, however limited, on their own. The ROI on this is difficult to track but nevertheless enormous, particularly in the digital age where word of mouth is instantaneous.

Things that devalue a tourism experience, that wear you down and make you angry — cautions to the industry — come as no surprise but are, thankfully, less a part of the Canadian scene than in Asia where there's often zero regulation and competition is so fierce that people have no qualms about lying to your face to extract a buck. Still, these do need to be monitored here at home lest they wreck what, in perspective, is the decidedly good thing Whistler has going on: overbuild, oversupply, tourist prices, gouging and traps, false advertising, hidden costs, nasty surprises.

Overall, I've enjoyed being a tourist abroad, but I think I might now enjoy it even more at home.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.



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