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Opinion: How will sustainable tourism be achieved in Whistler?

As the tourism industry reboots at the tail end of COVID, a focus on sustainability is crucial
BD tourism column June
As the tourism industry reboots at the tail end of COVID, a focus on sustainability in Whistler and beyond is crucial.

In recent months, Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC), has travelled the province speaking with tourism operators, getting the proverbial lay of the land as another busy summer approaches.

“Virtually everyone is really bullish,” Judas says. “In other words, business is looking good, the bookings are up, the travellers are there and experiencing the products and services that our industry offers. The prospects look good for the future.”

That’s good news for the industry, and a far cry from the past two years of COVID-tinged uncertainty—but it’s not to say everything is smooth sailing from here.

Labour, housing and inflation remain hurdles for the industry, as does the lingering effects of a two-year-and-counting pandemic.

“I think what you’re seeing too, though, is significant burnout, as people worked extremely hard to try and keep their businesses afloat, and part and parcel with that burnout is just the mental and emotional toll that it’s taken on people, even the physical toll on people,”
Judas says. “I think there’s also a realization that, logically, the industry will never be the same, that we have to be more resilient, and perhaps we have to change our focus a bit.”

How the industry measured its success might change going forward, or even the kind of products and services on offer, Judas uses as examples.

“There is this whole notion of regenerative tourism, and that is leaving a destination better than when you found it, or giving something back as opposed to experiencing a place like Whistler for two weeks … but not really giving anything back,” he says.

“So that’s likely to change in future to ensure that there is no serious impact from an environmental or sustainability perspective, or social and cultural perspective.”

The concept of sustainable, regenerative tourism has gained traction throughout the pandemic. Last month, Tourism Vancouver Island announced it has achieved the Responsible Tourism Institute’s Biosphere certification, and is rebranding as “4VI”—a social enterprise focused on ensuring travel is “a force of good” for the Island and its residents.

According to Brian Cant, 4VI’s VP of business impact and engagement, the application process included a comprehensive analysis of Vancouver Island’s sustainability against 169 indicators aligned with the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development goals, and took about a year.

“Last year, as part of the process, we looked at our organization and the role it plays in the tourism industry. As part of our commitment to ensure that tourism is a force for good on Vancouver Island—forever—we are now operating as a social enterprise and committed to moving forward the important work of sustainability in the tourism space,”
Cant says.

The certification allows a region to demonstrate how they take sustainability seriously, “but also ensures they are accountable to make necessary and ongoing improvements,” he adds.

“Through this application process, we gained a much better understanding of what tourism sustainability is: the impact of tourism on Vancouver Island, how to measure it, and how to lead as a tourism organization in the sustainability space.”

Key for the certification is that it is not a paid membership or anecdotal designation; keeping the certification requires compliance and continuous improvement, which is evaluated on an annual basis, Cant says.

“The certification allows a destination to demonstrate how we take sustainability seriously, but also keeps us accountable to make necessary and ongoing changes,” he says, adding that communities and businesses on the Island will be able to sign on to a commitment program this summer through 4VI.

“Through this program, they can work with the 4VI team to create their own action plan with measurable outcomes, and become a Biosphere committed organization under our designation.”

While 4VI is one of just 50 destinations worldwide to earn the certification, and just the fifth in Canada (all in B.C.), there is “strong interest” in the program across the province, Cant says.

Would it work for Whistler?

“We would recommend this program for anyone who is interested in making change but committing to the hard work that is involved in the process of application and then putting the actions into place,” Cant says.

At Tourism Whistler (TW), efforts to market the resort as a mid-week destination to help smooth out peak weekend visitation were starting to pay dividends in 2019 (before the pandemic pushed visitation off a cliff), according to TW president and CEO Barrett Fisher.

The discussion about sustainable tourism in Whistler continues, and the pandemic has only put a finer point on the importance of balanced visitation.

According to Fisher, TW began reviewing a number of global sustainability certification programs just prior to the pandemic, including Biosphere, Greenstep Solutions, and Green Destinations/Mountain Ideal. The work was paused during the pandemic, “but our focus on responsible, sustainable and regenerative tourism continues to be a priority for our organization, including the potential of rolling out a sustainable certification program in the future,” Fisher says.

If the resort is as empty as it was at the height of the pandemic, the community won’t survive, but if it’s as full as the peak period volume years in 2017 and 2018, “that volume is not pleasant for the environment, it’s not pleasant for local residents who are trying to move about, and frankly it’s, at this point in time, not pleasant for businesses who don’t have the labour in place to support it,” Fisher adds. “So these are discussions that we’re having on an ongoing basis.”

After seeing the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s latest Balance Model growth projections—which predict more visitors, more residents, increased workforce shortages and 50 per cent more traffic congestion by 2040—I’m only left with more questions about how sustainable tourism will be achieved in Whistler (or if that’s even possible).

At the very least, it’s encouraging to know local officials are pondering these questions—I’m just not confident we’re going to be satisfied with the answers.