Rural islands connect

Sustainable tourism among many topics discussed at two-day conference

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Delegates from multiple small island communities gathered at Pender Island’s Poets Cove Resort on Thursday and Friday for the first ever conference to focus on the economic well-being of such places.

Members of Salt Spring’s Community Economic Development Commission were deeply involved in the organization of the forum, with Francine Carlin and Holly MacDonald both sitting on the steering committee. Participants came together to forge connections, share their similar challenges and concerns, and discuss strategies for achieving sustainable economies without necessarily courting growth in the face of climate change.

Forum topics over the two days included green business trends, entrepreneurial ecosystems, island transportation, economies of climate change, tourism management and sustaining rural culture. 

A session on sustainable tourism held on Friday morning addressed some of the impacts visitors can have on island communities and discussed ways to stretch tourism throughout the calendar year instead of being bombarded in just two months.

Panel members were Callum Matthews, director of destination development with Tourism Vancouver Island; Dawn Rueckl, manager of policy and programs at the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture; and Salt Spring’s Randy Cunningham, chair of the Southern Gulf Islands Tourism Partnership Society. While the session did not fully dive into the advertised topic — Balancing Tourism with Environmental Protection — there was discussion of how to educate visitors about island limitations such as water and septic systems as part of a more sustainable industry overall.

“Research is key to having a better understanding of what success means,” Matthews said. “Increasing visitor volume is not a good measure; we need to focus more on what visitors do to contribute to our communities.”

He mentioned Indigenous tourism partnerships and “voluntourism” events such as beach clean-ups as positive developments. He also suggested celebrating local businesses that are truly part of the communities they are in, and working across community and local government groups.

Cunningham discussed the new Gulf Islands society that will be receiving funds from the two per cent MRDT accommodation tax that was implemented on Sept. 1. He said the organization is working with BC Ferries and other sources to gather data on visitors, with hopes of convincing some people to move their travel to the fall and spring seasons to better deal with over-stretched resources in the summer months.

The society is working on a five-year strategy that must be reviewed by Destination BC. Annual tactical plans are also required, with the group’s first to be submitted by Nov. 30. Those plans will become publicly available through the Capital Regional District, whose economic commissions advanced the creation of the SGITPS.

Criticism of the new society came from South Pender Island trustee Steve Wright, who said the Islands Trust and local stakeholders aside from business owners were not consulted about the plans to create the new destination management and marketing organization. He asked that more concrete development strategies be shared. Another attendee questioned how communities were involved in creating the local and regional-level plans that Tourism Vancouver Island is working on.

Matthews explained that stakeholder meetings were held in 20 communities and that locally elected officials, including those from the Islands Trust, were invited to attend each one. 

For more on this story, see the Nov. 13, 2019 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.

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