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How Whistler and other global hotspots are dealing with the impacts of overtourism

Business has been booming in the little resort town of Whistler over the past several years. The record-breaking visitor numbers have kept cash registers ringing, but they have also brought some unintended side effects that make you wonder if Whistler has fallen victim to its own success: traffic backups, scarce parking, short-staffed businesses, and an ever-increasing lack of employee housing. People — both privately and publicly — are pondering the future of the resort, and those in positions of power are grappling with the challenge of controlling growth while protecting the environment, the local economy and the social fabric that has made this community one of the most desirable ski resorts to live and play the world over.

If Whistlerites are feeling overwhelmed by the influx of visitors — nearly 3 million in 2016 — they are not alone. Destinations around the world are buckling under the pressure of too many tourists. International travel is an $8-trillion industry, which grew by six per cent last year. In 2016, Canada saw double-digit increases in visitation from several key markets, including China, South Korea, Mexico and the U.K., And there is no sign of things slowing down as the global population increases exponentially and millions around the world enter the middle class.

The impact of these numbers is easy to see. Crowds clog the streets of the world's most iconic destinations, and increasing pressure from travellers is changing the very nature of these places long lauded for their cultural authenticity. The quaint artisanal stores that once lined the winding streets of Old Town in Prague have been replaced by The Disney Store, Swarovski Crystal and Chanel. In Venice, locals lament the death of their 1,300-year-old city because residents can't afford to live there anymore.

This summer, as temperatures rose, tempers flared and cities around Europe witnessed a strong backlash against "overtourism." Tour buses were attacked and vandalized by groups of irate Barcelonans. Thousands of angry protesters lined the usually peaceful, romantic canals of Venice. The Croatian seaside city of Dubrovnik started limiting the number of visitors entering its historic Old Town. Greek islands turned away cruise ships.

Tourism, it seemed, had become too much of a good thing.

'Loved to death'

Elizabeth Becker literally wrote the book on overtourism. In Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, the former New York Times correspondent reiterates how tourism today is a massive, $3-billion-a-day business. The World Travel and Tourism Council reports that at least one in 10 people around the world is employed by the travel and tourism industry.

"Population growth is a huge factor in overtourism. We are heading for a world population of 9 billion people, and more people means more travel," says Becker. "Europe is like the canary in the coal mine. Some of the most beautiful places in the world are pushing back. In Florence, the mayor ordered the steps of their beautiful churches be watered down every morning and afternoon to prevent tourists from sitting on them, eating their lunch and acting like it is a recreation spot."

Becker says that if overtourism is to be controlled, it can't be left up to the industry. It will require government leadership. "If governments at all levels — local, regional and national — fail to regulate tourism, overcrowding will continue and more places will be loved to death."

Is Whistler in danger of meeting the same fate?

Preserving a world-class community

Sometimes to look forward, you have to look back. Al Raine could be called British Columbia's "godfather of skiing." He sat on Whistler's first municipal council and is now mayor of the Resort Municipality of Sun Peaks. A former coach of Canada's Alpine Ski Team, Raine arrived in Whistler in the early '70s and quickly got involved in the development of Blackcomb Mountain and Whistler Village. Teaming up with other Whistler pioneers such as Garry Watson and John Hetheringon, Raine drew on his extensive knowledge of ski resorts around the world to collaborate and create a vision for Whistler.

"We had some guiding principles to work with," says Raine. "We thought that about 36,000 (bed units) would serve the potential of both mountains. We wanted the majority of the accommodation to be close to the village, with as much opportunity for ski-in-ski-out properties as possible. And we aimed to avoid traffic problems by keeping accommodation close to the mountains and having a pedestrian village."

Raine had a vision of British Columbia as an international ski destination, but even he is surprised by how popular it has become. "I sometimes look at the numbers from Whistler and some of the other resorts and I have to pinch myself. It is beyond even my expectations."

With this level of success comes problems. "There have to be limits to growth," says Raine. "Whistler was designed with 36,000 (bed units) and a ski capacity of 24,000 to 25,000. The resort has gone way beyond that now. They changed the formula used to count beds. If you used the formula that we used, Whistler would probably be over 70,000 pillows."

Raine says Whistler will face increased pressure as the Lower Mainland continues to grow. The population of Vancouver and the Fraser Valley is predicted to hit 3 million people by 2020. In addition, tourism in British Columbia is increasing at a rate of approximately five per cent per year, with Whistler's annual visitor numbers rising at an even quicker clip.

"Ideally, had the world been perfect for British Columbia, we would have had one or two more resorts developed close to the Vancouver market so that Whistler wasn't carrying the full load. Right now, Whistler is carrying the whole load, and the Lower Mainland keeps growing."

When asked how Whistler can manage this growth and avoid the impacts of overtourism, Raine hesitates. He talks about managing the balance between day trippers and destination visitors, putting the brakes on development, and implementing a tax to support the development of tourism infrastructure without burdening resident property owners. In the end, he doesn't have the answer, but he knows one thing for sure.

"If a resort is not looking after its employees, the guest is going to feel that eventually and it will drive your business down," says Raine. "You will never be a world-class destination if you are not a world-class community."

The manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler Blackcomb, Arthur De Jong, agrees. "If you don't have people who are passionate about the place, you don't have authenticity. The people who live and work in Whistler — now and in the past — have been and will be fundamental to the future of our community," he says. "There were people in this valley, like (naturalist) Don MacLaurin, who understood the concept of sustainable development long before the idea was even defined."

De Jong arrived in Whistler in 1980 and worked as a ski patroller, ski patrol manager and mountain manager before taking on his current environmental steward role. He views the development of the resort through a long lens. When asked where he sees the resort in the next 10 years, he demurs, saying that he usually looks at things from a 30- to 40-year perspective. And his concerns go far beyond visitor numbers. He is looking at the impact of global environmental changes.

"We are feeling pressure as a community, but we are going to feel far greater pressures because of the impact on our biosphere," says De Jong. "Climate change is the No. 1 consideration for building our mountain sustainably into the future."

Perhaps surprisingly, De Jong says that climate change will not necessarily mean a lack of snow. In fact, research shows that winter temperatures have gone up only slightly since the mid-'70s, but summer temperatures have risen dramatically over that time — over two degrees Celsius. The increase is significant. "There is a lot of concern about the glaciers retreating," says De Jong. "It isn't because there has been less snow. It is because the rising summer temperatures are melting them."

Nevertheless, De Jong says WB is working hard to plan for the possibility of less snow. "For decades, we have been working on putting our lifts higher. We do more summer grooming so that we can open earlier with less snow and remain open longer. And we are making substantial investments in energy-efficient snowmaking technology."

De Jong emphasizes that the mountain strives to get more guests connecting with nature without affecting the environment. He admits that their efforts have not always been successful, but there have been some very positive outcomes.

"We focus on not harming ecosystems while placing recreation inside those ecosystems," he says. "For instance, when we built the Symphony Chair on Whistler Mountain, we went from 40-per-cent tree removal to only five per cent."

The bottom line for De Jong is minimizing the ecological footprint of the mountain, and he believes that Whistler Blackcomb's new owners, Vail Resorts, will continue to support that philosophy. Earlier this year, Vail Resorts released their "Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint," committing to zero net emissions by 2030, zero waste to landfill by 2030 and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat. De Jong acknowledges those goals are ambitious, but he is nonetheless impressed by the initiative.

A game of whack-a-mole

Trying to tackle the problems that come with growing tourism in Whistler can feel a bit like playing a game of whack-a-mole. There are so many different issues to address that just when you feel like one has been solved, another pops up. As the president of Tourism Whistler (TW), Barrett Fisher is all too aware of the delicate balancing act required to keep Whistler on track — for residents and visitors alike.

Earlier this year, mounting concern in the community over the impact of increased visitor numbers alarmed Fisher — who grew up skiing the slopes of Whistler — and she took the unusual step of writing an impassioned letter published in Pique (Letters to the Editor, Sept. 14).

"I saw local residents expressing concerns in the local media about housing and transportation issues," says Fisher, "I wanted to let people know that we hear them and we empathize. There are leaders throughout the community who are working diligently on these issues and coming up with some really proactive, thoughtful solutions."

When talking about growth, Fisher prefers the term "responsible tourism" to describe TW's approach. This means taking into consideration the needs of everyone in the community: visitors, residents, and businesses.

"In a community like Whistler, all these pieces are so integrated," says Fisher. "We want to have a warm, welcoming community for our visitors, so in turn, we have to make sure our local employees and residents are well-housed, have good jobs and that the cost of living is appropriate."

At the same time, Fisher highlights some of the efforts being undertaken to manage visitor numbers. These include a campaign last year encouraging people to avoid peak travel times on the highway, offering discount pricing for mid-week and off-season travel, developing alternative visitor experiences during slow periods and encouraging guests to explore areas beyond the village. But ultimately, Whistler's success is inextricably linked to the economy, and this past year has seen a sort of perfect storm in tourism terms.

"Global tourism is on the rise, so Whistler will inevitably experience an increase in numbers, but you have to look beyond that at the economic, political, social and consumer trends that also apply from year to year," says Fisher. "If you look at this past year, we saw very strong economies in some of our largest markets: Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. We also saw strong exchange rates that make Whistler an attractive destination for (those) markets. And we saw some very strong awareness levels as a result of our marketing and sales efforts."

Fisher says that when you combine those factors with two above-average snow years and an unusually hot and sunny summer, everything falls into place to make it one of the busiest years in the history of the resort.

But this coming year might look a bit different.

"There are a number of factors that will have an impact, including the exchange rate," says Fisher. "Our forecasts are predicting that (visitation) will be flat or slightly down for the next year."

When I ask Elizabeth Becker, the overtourism guru, for an example of a city that was successfully handling tourism growth, she offered up the example of Bordeaux, a wine-growing hub in southwestern France. In the early 1990s, Bordeaux had a reputation for being a "boring, faded beauty" full of grimy buildings and abandoned warehouses. Now, it is seeing a tourism boom. How is it handling the success? According to Stephan Delaux, president of the Bordeaux Tourism Board and deputy mayor of the city: "The key to good tourism is to do your planning for the people who live there, for the citizens, and if that is done well, then the visitor will be happy."

Whistler faces the same challenges as many of the world's top tourism destinations — a lack of affordable housing, increased traffic and transportation challenges and concern about preserving the natural environment. And some of the responsibility for these issues falls on the shoulders of local government. Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has lived and worked in the resort since the '70s, and is well aware of the ups and downs that often face a resort community.

"It wasn't that long ago, with the 2008 global recession, that we were feeling the effects of the downturn, with lower occupancy rates and lower visitor numbers," she says. "The economy is cyclical, so it is important that we keep focused on the longer-term strategy and vision for the community and the resort."

Now the resort is bursting at the seams with people struggling to find accommodation, employers unable to meet their staffing needs, and regular traffic jams on busy days.

Wilhelm-Morden acknowledges the difficulties.

"Over the past three years, we have been very successful from an economic perspective and now we are looking at some of the unexpected consequences of that success," she says. "It is a fundamental balancing act, protecting the natural environment while being mindful of the livability of Whistler and of the impact of visitation on the community."

But she is confident that Whistler has strategies in place to deal with overtourism.

"Overtourism is a risk for places that don't have a clear vision and that lack accountability measures to inform decisions. That's not Whistler."

Wilhelm-Morden points to the Mayor's Task Force on Resident Housing, which last month released a list of recommendations to expand housing, including building additional employee and resident-restricted accommodation, and allowing more in-fill housing. The Transportation Advisory Group is tackling issues like traffic, parking and transportation. And the Economic Partnership Initiative Committee — comprised of representatives from the local business community — looks at economic planning and development. All three groups will present information at a Nov. 2 community forum.

"We established our vision in Whistler2020 when we said that we wanted 'to be the premier mountain resort community — as we move toward sustainability,'" Wilhelm-Morden says of Whistler's guiding sustainability plan. "That means protecting the natural environmental while ensuring the livability of the community."

Kicking the addiction to growth

Local residents might be skeptical, but here is some food for thought. While residents of Venice are fleeing by the thousands because they can't afford to live there, over 75-per-cent of Whistler employees live within the community, and the goal is to raise that number to 80 per cent. By any measure, it is an impressive figure.

Anna Pollock, who is based in the U.K., has had a long and respected career as a tourism researcher, strategist and the founder of tourism consulting firm Conscious Travel. Pollock warns of what she calls an impending "tourism tsunami." Figures predict a rising middle class, with 3.2 billion people around the world predicted to fall into the category by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030.

"Overtourism is a handy term," says Pollock, "because it has an ecological context. Overfishing can kill a fishery. In the same way, too many tourists, badly managed, leads to a degradation of the visitor experience, and people drift away."

Pollock says the tourism industry has traditionally been addicted to growth and that the concept of development needs to be redefined. She says the only way to change tourism is from the inside out.

"Conscious travel is about becoming mindful and aware, as individuals and communities," says Pollock. "We need to make informed choices about who we are, what we yearn for, what matters to us, what's worth preserving and what future is worth creating. If we approach tourism from this perspective, we will be able to make better choices about how we behave as guests and hosts."

Experts agree that the success of a tourism destination is determined by the degree to which the needs of local residents are met. That is good news for Whistler. This community has a strong legacy of visionary citizens. Longtime local residents were passionate environmentalists before that term was commonly used. Affordable housing is a constant struggle, but more of Whistler's employees bed down here than in any other North American resort.

So, despite global pressures like population growth, climate change and the economy, the solution lies within the community. Growth is inevitable, but it will be up to the people of Whistler to decide what that growth will look like.