Let’s Rebuild Tourism Better

For me and many others, spring symbolizes renewal, rebirth and new growth. The melting snow and milder rains enhance this imagery by washing away the remnants of winter. Don’t get me wrong; I love winter, and, this year, I was initially sad to see it go. But once I had a taste of warmer temperatures and fewer layers, I was ready to transition. 

Unfortunately, the melting snow and rains also tend to reveal the sins of consumption that get buried in winter. I live very close to a ski resort, and runoff from the parking lot tracks through a large culvert that goes under one road only to end up on the side of the road we walk on every day. The more the snow and ice melted, the more garbage we saw. Every day. Beer cans, single use plastic water bottles, empty food containers, cigarette butts…And this year – face masks, another scourge of the pandemic.  

Coincidentally, over the course of a couple of weeks, as the detritus continued to flow and accumulate, I also happened to be participating in several online sustainable tourism forums. While listening to tourism and environmental experts discuss overtourism, revenge-tourism, eco-tourism, sustainable tourism, stewardship and social license, the images of my own little microcosm kept surfacing.  

At the core of my values, I believe nature and its stewardship are the base upon which tourism must be built and grown. All decisions related to managing a destination that people come to see because of its natural (and built) environment should be put through the stewardship test. It’s only logical that, if people are choosing to visit a destination because of its natural attractions, it’s paramount that those natural attractions be protected and preserved.  

Unfortunately, too often, the financial ‘attraction’ of the number of tourists and their spending potential can overshadow the need to protect these spaces. Decision-makers can too easily glom onto the more accessible metrics and, from there, make erroneous assumptions like, “more visitors [of any kind] equals more money.”  

One of the presentations I recently listened to was that of Jonathan Tourtellot, CEO of the Destination Stewardship, a founding partner of The Future of Tourism Coalition. During his talk, he demonstrated how destinations can and should move away from the myopic focus of attracting the greatest number of visitors and focus, instead, on attracting a responsible number of the right type of visitors. Jonathan used Belize, a cruise ship destination as an example. The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) found that Belize receives (pre-COVID) 800,300 visitors from cruise ships, accounting for approximately $31 million US to the Belize economy. Comparatively, 236,600 stayover visitors spend $144 million US annually. This makes the individual stayover visitor 15 times more “economically valuable” than the cruise ship passenger, with much less of an environmental footprint.  

Another panel discussion I watched was the virtual Impact Sustainability Travel and Tourism conference. While acknowledging the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the travel and tourism industries, presenters also acknowledged the silver lining opportunity to “build back better” and focus on the sustainability-minded traveller, those visitors who appreciate and contribute to socio-cultural as well as environmental sustainability of the places they visit. 

As destinations and DMOs gear up for the anticipated travel resurgence, there is a real opportunity – and I would argue, need – to envision a new approach to attracting and retaining low-impact visitors, those who place a premium on stewardship. Although measuring the environmental, social and economic benefits of this approach may be more challenging, it is not impossible. I am also reminded of this quote (attributed to both Einstein and sociologist William Bruce Cameron and not likely associated with tourism):  

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.