Travel

Is Canada on the cusp of a tourism enlightenment?

What tourism’s shift to sustainability, reconciliation and regeneration means for the rest of us

  • May 16, 2022
  • 1,886 words
  • 8 minutes
In its quest to become more sustainable, Victoria’s Butchart Gardens invested in LED greenhouses, electric boat tours, diversified water sources, integrated pest management, and electric tools. (Photo: Rene Fisher/Can Geo Photo Club)
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“It’s hard to work against Mother Nature, and it costs,” says Dave Cowen, CEO of the Butchart Gardens. We’re backstage at the iconic Vancouver Island attraction, learning about the facility’s commitment to sustainability, from water conservation and soil renewal to building an industrial recycling program that deals with the waste of over one million visitors a year.  I’m on a field trip for attendees of Victoria’s IMPACT Sustainability and Tourism Conference, where Canada’s tourism stakeholders gather to address the issues that challenge the leisure market everywhere: climate change, the pandemic, reconciliation, supply chain demands, shifting labour forces, consumer trends, and disruptive technology. Baked into the conference’s manifesto is a positive commitment: “We’re not waiting for the world to change. We must change the world.”

After two years of lockdowns and restrictions, Canadian tourism has returned with a sonic boom. Yet an industry supported by excessive growth, left unchecked and unmanaged, is simply not sustainable. Trust me, overtourism is very much a thing, typically identified by crowds running amok causing ecological havoc as profits drain offshore to the detriment of local communities. Resident backlashes, a housing crisis, polluted environments, high prices, poor experiences – tourism’s unexpected pandemic breather is a rare opportunity to face these challenges head on, and pull it all back. Marsha Walden, CEO of Destination Canada, shares her thoughts on stage. “Our industry is inherently sustainable and we will face an existential crisis if we don’t address it now. It is not about visitor numbers anymore, it’s about value.”   

Chatting to Anthony Everett, CEO of 4VI (formerly Tourism Vancouver Island), I sense his frustration and boldness. “We need to think about this differently.  The impacts on wildlife and nature are acute. We’ve passed the point of unsustainable.” Beth Potter, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, agrees: “We have to educate our guests as to what’s expected of them when they visit us.” Destinations are increasingly channeling their marketing efforts to attract and educate tourists who align with sustainable cultural values.  

With our wide-open spaces, political stability, bucket list attractions, and high vaccination rates, the brand value of Canada has skyrocketed among travellers worldwide. Preparing for both the impact of climate change and a flood of new visitors, Walden reminds everyone to never waste a crisis. With airlines, hotels, government and tour operators at the table, how can Canadian tourism rebound to the benefit of land, sea and people?

Engaging communities

“We’re not Venice, but we can learn from Venice,” says Cowen at the Butchart Gardens, referring to the poster child of overtourism. Meaningful community engagement, collaboration, and consultation must be front and centre in both long-and short-term tourism strategies. Paul Nursey, CEO of Destination Greater Victoria, gives an example of how new bike lanes for residents created exponential growth for the city’s bicycle tourism. The city also engaged residents and businesses during the pandemic to successfully transform Government Street into a bustling pedestrian centre. Further afield, Muna Haddad, who leads sustainable tourism initiatives in Jordan, explained how the revitalization of a village called Umm Qais serves as a case study of community-focused tourism boosting culture, landscape and economies in lesser-known regions. If cities, attractions and tour operators collaborate with the community, locals become enthusiastic travel ambassadors, and a positive reflection for the visitors they wish to welcome. 

Cecilia Dick, cultural tourism supervisor for the Songhees Nation, shares stories of Discovery Island. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Reconciliation

Respecting and understanding the environment are cornerstones of the Indigenous worldview. Indigenous-led tourism experiences combine this core value with adventure, personality, history, and unique interactions. Renowned anthropologist and Honorary Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society Wade Davis has a lively discussion with Blood Tribe Elder Mike Bruised Head about the tragedy of Alberta’s lost stories, and the drive to restore Indigenous names for natural landmarks in Canada.

“Why are our mountains named after dead British generals of a particular era?” questions Davis. How is Mount Blakiston, honouring English explorer Thomas Blakiston, more relevant than the timeless stories that breathe life into the spectacular landscape of Waterton Lakes National Park? Waterton, in turn, honours eccentric English naturalist and taxidermist Charles Waterton, who managed slaves on his uncle’s plantation in British Guiana. The more you dig into colonial names, the uglier it can get. Tourism is a powerful cultural and economic tool to engage and directly benefit Indigenous Peoples in Canada, and reconciliation must extend beyond land acknowledgments and advocacy into the realm of action. In one positive example, the Prince Edward Island legislature recently voted to ask the federal government to formally change the name of Confederation Bridge, which links the island to mainland New Brunswick, to Epekwitk, a word Mi’kmaq people have long used to describe the island. Keith Henry, CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, says the tragic discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools have greatly amplified and accelerated a much-needed cultural shift. Funding and consumer support for Indigenous-led tourism is increasing, as both international and domestic visitors show a willingness to engage authentically with Indigenous stories, peoples and culture like never before. We all have a lot to learn.  

Innovation

The word ‘pivot’ is so commonly used it has been ridiculed. To survive the pandemic, many of us – in tourism and beyond – have had to apply the P word to our professional lives, resulting in all manner of innovations. I learn of reusable food packaging containers and drink cups for take-out and delivery. A start-up called Moment Energy recycles the batteries of electric cars into power generators for resorts and off-grid housing. A Montreal-based company called Terragon Environmental Technologies has developed affordable machines to recycle food, human and industrial waste into irrigation water and fertile compost, enabling remote and isolated settlements to be fully sustainable. Frontiers North Adventures, who operate the Tundra Buggies synonymous with polar bear tours in Churchill, Man., used their pandemic downtime to develop electric batteries and software that can power their custom-built vehicles. In the process, they developed enough technology to form a separate division, Aurora EV, which assists other ‘people movers’ like snowcats and tourist buses to make the transition from diesel to electric. Air Canada is aiming to be net zero by 2050, investing in new aircraft technology, bio-fuels, carbon offsets, and renewable energy to power their ground transportation. The Butchart Gardens invested in LED greenhouses, electric boat tours, diversified water sources, integrated pest management, and electric tools. More and more businesses recognize that a promising future lies in the rapid growth of clean technology.  

Decarbonization

We’re at the mercy of industries that produce carbon in quantities vastly beyond our personal output. Airlines, hotels, attractions, and cruise ships cater to hundreds of thousands of people a day. Surely the responsibility to offset carbon lies with them? I ask Jill Doucette, CEO of Synergy Enterprises and one of the founders of the IMPACT conference, what budget-conscious travellers like myself can do about our carbon footprints. I want to do right, but spending hundreds of dollars in offsets is not realistic, especially with the rising cost of living. Her answer is surprisingly honest: “Do your research, seek out social enterprises and community tourism, and participate locally. You can choose your hotel and tourism operators with care. I think that will do more than just investing in carbon offsets, and I say that as a carbon accountant.” Synergy did a full assessment of the carbon footprint of the IMPACT conference, totalling each attendee’s transportation, meal and hotel costs, and offsetting the carbon with investments to ensure the event is net-zero. Doucette is encouraged that cruise ships are advancing and adopting green technologies, but ultimately believes we’ll have to make an energy transition, likely using liquid natural gas and hydrogen as bridge fuels. With governments, operators and corporations making large investments in low carbon futures, individual travellers don’t necessarily have to pay more, but we can choose to give our business to those that do.  

Regeneration

Sustainable, renewal, socially conscious – what do these terms actually mean, and how do we avoid companies ‘green-washing’ their services with opaque, hard-to-measure terminology? Events like IMPACT help build industry cohesion around these concepts. It becomes clear that regenerative tourism refers to healing land and communities, creating net positives for both, and leaving things better than we found them. Examples range from renewable energy technologies, community-led tourism initiatives and carbon-capturing seaweed farms to the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture on Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula. Funded by the municipality with full local support, 33 hectares of forest, field and wetland have been restored at a former race track to enhance biodiversity, restore ecological balance, grow healthy food for the community, and train a new generation of ‘farm-preneurs.” It was particularly inspiring to hear Maureen Gordon of Maple Leaf Adventures speak about the Small Ship Tour Operators Association of B.C., a coalition of traditional competitors working together to raise the tide for all. Their superhuman effort during the pandemic removed 750,000 pounds of garbage from 1,000 kilometres of shoreline in the Great Bear Rainforest, 60 per cent of which was recycled. Leisure tourism is fun; eco-tourism is educational and sustainable. Regenerative tourism restores land and communities to their natural state for the enjoyment and appreciation of future generations. 

The Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture is cultivating a new generation of "farm-preneurs.” (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Travel has the power to connect cultures, break down stereotypes, and educate visitors on how to engage respectfully with the people, wildlife, history and culture of a place. As tourism matures into a socially-conscious enterprise, tensions will inevitably arise in an industry that has traditionally thrived on and pursued growth at any cost. “There’s no easy answer, and we’re going to have to explore what that balance looks like,” says 4VI’s Anthony Everett. Victoria’s outgoing mayor Lisa Helps also sees challenges ahead: “There are going to be screw-ups, but the underlying key has to be deep community relationships. It’s called leadership, not status-quoship.”

Rachel Dodds, professor at the School of Hospitality at Toronto Metropolitan University and author of Are We There Yet?, a forthcoming book about sustainable family travel, emphasizes the pitfalls of an industry sounding off in an echo-chamber: “The issue is that the proverbial ‘we need to’ often eliminates the much-needed ‘I am going to.’” 

Personally, I’m reminded of the organic food revolution. When conscious consumers sought out more organic food, retailers responded not necessarily because it was the right thing to do for the planet, but because it’s what their customers demanded. As travellers, we have the power to force real change in the industry by spending our dollars with operators, agencies, companies and destinations that take community engagement, decarbonization, reconciliation and sustainability seriously. These socially-conscious entities will thrive as a result, and hold-outs will have to follow the lead, or risk failure altogether.  

Robert Sandford, the Chair of Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, puts it bluntly: “We are on the cusp of a great change that recognizes history, culture and nature. The potential for Canada is staggering. We can become a global leader, an epicentre of hope. It’s a transformation not just for tourism, but for all of Canada.”  

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