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Investing in Sustainability is the Path Forward for the Alberni Valley Tourism Industry

Updated: May 19, 2020

I am going to go out on a limb and say that anyone living in the Alberni Valley considers themselves lucky, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. The community has demonstrated its heartfelt appreciation for those who are considered essential workers, we have come together as a community to support those in need or who are facing significant impacts, and lastly I think we all recognize the ample space available to us by just living in a smaller community. However, COVID-19 has dismantled our economy, and impacted several anchoring and growing economic sectors in the community. One sector that we have seen impacts by COVID-19 is the tourism industry, this industry and its stakeholders will now need to face the decision of how to build a strategic path towards tourism regeneration.

Like many, I feel that a positive impact of the unexpected reduction in visitation caused by COVID-19 is the opportunity to change the mindset focussed around growth, and shift towards more responsible, more meaningful, more innovative and less damaging tourism in the Alberni Valley. Traditionally, the tourism industry operates within a growth economic model, and we measure success by visitation numbers and revenues attached to each person. This has led to obvious impacts within the industry and we can see the many negative social and environmental impacts around Vancouver Island. Growth in visitor numbers should not be perceived or defined as success, especially in emerging destinations where local communities and small businesses are often not the ones who benefit.

This is our chance to shift our ‘ways of doing normal’, and consider and embrace how to create change in our tourism systems! The rise, momentum, and recognition for solutions in sustainable travel and tourism over the last decade has created a needed movement, and a timely opportunity. Although there are many ways to approach and understand sustainability, I urge our decision makers to acknowledge this paradigm shift. Without getting too outside the scope of this article, I would simply put that at the very least it is vital to protect and support the health of our residents, community, culture, and environment (the makeup of a destination). Weaving strategic plans around sustainable initiatives post-COVID is how we become resilient. This is the path to our new normal.

Based on the wide range of current online discussions, analyses, reports, surveys, thought-pieces as well as case studies from various destinations on the responses to COVID-19 from the tourism industry, I have listed several opportunities that are particularly relevant for a sustainable tourism industry in Port Alberni.

Responsible Tourism Products

The new normal will be one where visitors and customers seek experiences and products that are ethically sourced, environmentally conscious, and contribute to a greener economy. These travellers are also going to be more careful in choosing destinations that meet safety and health standards as well.

This is an opportunity for Port Alberni, as visitors will likely be looking at places that are more secluded in order to avoid the crowded places. Additionally, visitors will be more aware of their travel behaviours and will likely be choosing longer amounts of time in one destination. For Port Alberni this could translate to products and experiences that focus on cultural tourism, nature-based tourism, and agri-tourism.

Activating & Connecting with our Destination Management Organizations

We can see the work that our DMOs are doing in real-time, look at the regional program that Tourism Vancouver Island has recently launched, Destination Think! DMO group, as well as the local program called Pa Together for Tourism. These programs are primarily supporting the local industry through open communication, providing tools, resources, and information to help businesses weather the crisis. But, there is more than could be done! This is an opportunity for the DMOs in Port Alberni to step up their efforts in order to support and elevate to recovery of our industry. Like Diane Dredge from the Tourism EcoLab has said “the real vision and tourism leadership is going to come from destinations that offer something more, deliver purpose driven tourism, transformational visitor experiences and benefits to all stakeholders”. Now is the time to focus on building a resilient and thriving community with the appropriate systems and infrastructure rather than just promoting the idea of a community.

I can imagine that this suggestion may stir the pot - I am fully aware of the limited resources and other challenges that the DMOs face. But this article is about the opportunities to regenerate tourism, so why not respectfully share our truths?

Appealing to a Local Market

The need for the Port Alberni City and DMOs to shift their attention on developing domestic tourism is an opportunity to encourage Port Albernians to stay within their communities and support the local tourism businesses, and to get to know their beautiful area.

I have lived in Port for 5 years now and I have met many residents who do not generally explore the area. This pandemic is a perfect chance to discover, or rediscover, the Alberni Valley and build a deeper connection with the surrounding area. The recent McKinsey report on the consumer behaviour changes post COVID-19 further supports this push towards local markets. The report highlights the hesitations that visitors have towards returning to international travel, not to mention nervousness in even interprovincial travel.

Maintaining Trust and Relationships

Now is the time to listen and communicate better with the local industry stakeholders and the community members. This will build much-needed trust that will benefit the community when tourists return. This is particularly important, because lack of cooperation and communication between private and public sector on planning and implementation of tourism in the regions as well as lack of trust are one of the key challenges in tourism development. I think Jeremy Sampson from the Travel Foundation says it best “Communities belong at the center of tourism. Now, we can make a choice to put them at the heart of recovery planning”. This brings me to an opportunity that is also an urgent necessity to local tourism recovery efforts: the opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other.

From a local and global perspective, we all understand that tourism is resilient but “this crisis is like no other and requires strong and coordinated action” (UNWTO, 2020). Any plan for recovery and for building a more resilient, more sustainable tourism industry in Port Alberni will require a coordinated approach and cooperation with a wide range of stakeholders: government, business, academics, SMEs, associations. It is imperative to resist the temptation to ‘return to normal’ because the ‘normal’ was damaging for this community and for the natural environment.

To quote the authors of the ‘Pandemics, tourism and global change: a rapid assessment of COVID-19’ article recently published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism “With the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgent need not to return to business-as-usual when the crisis over”. I echo that statement and hope that this article has provided some insight to the realities of our local economy, community, and general state of environment. COVID-19- as awful, damaging and scary as it has been – can be seen as an opportunity to redefine tourism in the Alberni Valley.

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