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Education and tourism go together like...

So here's a vacation idea; picture this. Eleven days on an idyllic, white sand and shell beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Water so clear and blue you may never want to see water again because anything less beautiful would be disappointing.
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So here's a vacation idea; picture this. Eleven days on an idyllic, white sand and shell beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Water so clear and blue you may never want to see water again because anything less beautiful would be disappointing. Long walks along that endless idyllic beach. I mean LONG walks... like seven hour walks. Commencing at 8:00 p.m. local time and stretching 'til sun up. What would you be doing walking along the beach all freakin' night long? Looking for leatherback turtles, playing midwife to them as they lay eggs.

But it gets better. After a night patrolling the beach birthin' turtle eggs, you stretch out in your hammock by the sea just as the sun breeches the still horizon. Sleep well, oh tired one. Because around 2:00 p.m. you'll be roused to, what else, help cook your own — and other's — dinner, pack lunches and get ready to hit the beach again.

Sounds more like bootcamp than a vacation. Yet, the good people at Earthwatch used to flog this, and other fascinating, if arduous, expeditions as learning vacations. They probably still do and if I had anything approaching an Internet connection I'd happily confirm that for you but that's not really the point.

The point is, this is something some people consider (a) a holiday and (b) lifelong learning.

Lest you consider this an aberration, it actually sounded like one of Earthwatch's more fun-filled vacations. Sticking with the turtle theme, the hardcore could opt for something even more rustic. Imagine checking into a thatched lean-to on a beach in Baja, only to rise at 4:30 a.m. to wander out into the open ocean with local fishermen in local fishermen's sketchy boats to check turtle nets, hoist captive turtles into the boat, weigh them, take DNA samples and then, finally, enjoy a beautiful sunrise on your way back to a waiting breakfast which, thankfully, you don't have to cook.

No? How about doing spider inventories in an Ecuadorian Cloud Forest? Analyzing Komodo Dragon droppings in Indonesia. Hello, Leslie Anthony?

For those whose idea of holidays doesn't embrace reptiles, arachnids, amphibians or other creatures incapable of comprehending cocktail hour, there are companies — Road Scholar among them — that offer getaways that give people a chance to learn, or further almost any skill, or area of exploration and learning you can imagine. Arts, crafts, cooking, earth science, any conceivable sport or physical pursuit, cosmology, anthropology, storytelling, you name it and someone, somewhere is offering the terminally curious a chance to learn it, learn more about it or simply spend days indulging their passion for it.

Most, virtually all of these "courses" have one thing in common — they take place in beautiful, inspiring surroundings. Sound familiar? They happen in those places because they fall under the general category of educational tourism. I'm sure there are any number of you wondering right about now why in the world anyone would want to join education and tourism at the hip. Tourism and partying, sure. Tourism and sports, why not? Tourism and exploring the boundaries of alcohol poisoning, highly likely.

The sad truth is that most people, even most Canadians, can only go to so many all-inclusive sun resorts before what's left of their brains turn to pudding. At some point — I think it's called middle-age — they begin to ask themselves that time-honoured philosophical question perhaps best voiced by Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?

That's the point in life when a number of coincidences tend to converge. More leisure time, more discretionary income, more curiosity about life — and what happens when the music stops — failing knees, and a keen, if aching, understanding of the depths of one's own ignorance; or put another way, regret over all the things we didn't learn in school but might have if we'd paid half as much attention to what we were being taught as we did to how our hair looked.

So finally, or once again, an ad hoc group has been formed to explore how Whistler might leverage the natural beauty we have in such abundance, the idea of lifelong learning and a crying economic need to, well, if not diversify at least broaden our tourism economy.

This might be a good time to point out Whistler has been in the educational tourism business for longer than most of us have lived in town. Our curriculum has tended to be a bit narrow, admittedly, but our students have been among the most passionate. Since near the beginning, people have flocked to town to learn to ski... and board... and do whatever it is they do in terrain parks. All winter long, people come to attend ski school. Summer camps have been a long tradition on first Whistler and now Blackcomb, proving grounds for future Olympians. There is currently stuff being taught in the bike park that warms the hearts of orthopaedic surgeons across this great land.

But what we haven't done is what the Whistler Education Group is trying to get its collective mind around — broadening the scope of what people can come to town to learn, figuring out where such learning might take place, exploring the size and characteristics of the market and figuring out what we know and what we can teach.

Their efforts may come to naught. They may be fabulously successful. Either way, it's an approach that makes sense. Educational tourism is a natural extension of what we do and what we're all about. It doesn't try to overlay a culture of education on the town; it hopes to create one from the ground up, drawing on the physical inventory we already have and the expertise of the people who either live here or would be interested in borrowing the place to teach others what they know.

Educational tourism isn't about creating scholars, conferring degrees, training the future workforce. It's about giving people the opportunity to pursue something they're passionate or curious about in a setting conducive to both study and leisure. It doesn't tend to embrace 18-year-olds looking to gain life and professional skills and credentials. It caters to, let's be honest, a less-young market looking to enrich their lives, learn new things, meet new people, and return home smarter and more satisfied than they would have had they spent the week just playing golf. Unless, of course, they came here to spend a week learning how to improve their game.

The Group is likely to discover all the elements are in place in Whistler to be successful in pursuing educational tourism. We just need to get at it. I'm already planning to flesh out my seminar on Creative Procrastination when I find the time to get around to it... maybe tomorrow... maybe next week.




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