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‘We need to do tourism different’

Whistler Cultural Symposium asks the tough questions about reconciliation, diversity and environmental impacts in the tourism industry
From left, Whistler Councillor Arthur De Jong, AWARE executive director Claire Ruddy and climate writer Leslie Anthony participate in a panel discussion during a Tourism Whistler symposium at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre on Oct. 3.

In Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher’s experience, “the tourism industry can often be seen as a bubble—we’re insulated from global conflict.”

But amid the volatility of a changing climate and a growing recognition of ongoing inequities present across society, industry stakeholders have, as of late, sparked serious conversations with their communities, industry partners and with themselves, Fisher added.

“Some of those conversations have been about how can we make a difference? What are our values and our beliefs? Can we be part of a solution, and can tourism truly be a force for good?” she said.

Those were just a few of the questions Tourism Whistler posed during its first- ever Whistler Cultural Symposium, held at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) from Oct. 2 to 4.

Tourism Whistler invited roughly 100 writers, activists, tourism officials, politicians and business leaders from Whistler, the Lower Mainland and further afield to attend the “gathering of the minds,” as Fisher called it, which featured powerful, thought-provoking talks and panel discussions addressing a wide range of topical issues

The connection between reconciliation and tourism weaved into discussions throughout the day, but at no point was it more obviously at the forefront than during the final panel, titled “Reconcili-Action.”

Together with moderator Kiana Alexander Hill, lead executive officer at The Raven Institute, panellists Debbie Olsen (a freelance journalist), Cecilia Point (director of finance and operations for the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada), Heather Paul (SLCC executive director), and—by way of Paul’s impromptu invitation to join her onstage—Georgina Dan (an SLCC cultural ambassador and member of Lil’wat Nation), talked at length about what reconciliation means to them, both personally and within the parameters of tourism. The women contemplated how Indigenous tourism could function as a tool to bring about positive change in the relationship between First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians, for instance, by providing opportunities for public education and personal transformation; properly compensating individuals for sharing their knowledge and personal experiences; and above all, “listening and learning,” as Dan phrased it.

During their own Q-and-A-style panel on Monday morning, Whistler Blackcomb chief operating officer Geoff Buchheister and Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton were frank about how their respective organizations are working to limit their environmental footprints; address diversity, equity and inclusion; and promote reconciliation with the communities on whose unceded territories they operate. Whistler Blackcomb’s “Epic for Everyone” program and the RMOW’s collaboration exploring an Indigenous-led bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics were offered as examples.

The heavy weight of those topics was balanced with a healthy dose of optimism, illustrated by panellists’ innovative ideas and attendees’ willingness to ask tough questions, demonstrating a collective desire to do better.

One Q-and-A session that struck a slightly less optimistic tone was the mid- afternoon “Destination Resilience.” Neither moderator Leslie Anthony, a biologist and journalist (and Pique columnist), nor panellists Arthur De Jong, a municipal councillor and self-proclaimed climate warrior, and Claire Ruddy, executive director of Whistler’s environmental non- profit AWARE, could sugarcoat the dire risks posed by dwindling biodiversity, a changing climate and insufficient action to address it. The inevitability of wildfire being one, they agreed.

Especially since, as Anthony pointed out, the symposium itself was taking place on yet another dry, sunny October day where temperatures hit an unseasonably warm 26.2 degrees C, about 11 degrees warmer than the average high in Whistler for Oct. 3.

Throughout the meandering conversation, panellists and those in attendance didn’t ignore the elephant in the room: in light of the tourism industry’s environmental impacts, is it even ethical to promote travel in the first place?

Still, Ruddy and De Jong managed to offer a little hope for attendees, highlighting some of the progress Whistler has already made and the many actions that could still stand to make a difference.

“We live in contradictions,” De Jong acknowledged. “I’ve felt that ever since 1993. There are a lot of good things about tourism, and people in this room know it deeply, for mental health, physical health, social connectedness ... economics, the understanding of each other in the world—I could go on and on, but no, we should not stop tourism, but we need to do tourism different.”