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Whistler embarking on smart tourism 'visioning journey'

Committee aims to make tourism work for the community in the long-term

Whistler's mayor and council heard an update on its long-in-development smart tourism strategy this week, which is highlighted in its 2023-2026 strategic plan as a priority area for the municipality alongside housing, climate action and community engagement. 

In an update to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) regular council meeting on June 11, the RMOW’s economic development officer, Richard Kemble, reported on how the municipality sought to understand smart tourism through community engagement and research of other community approaches.

“One key lesson that emerged was that success can only be achieved through building partnerships and meaningful collaboration,” Kemble wrote in a report to council.

Kemble listed example communities of Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Queenstown, New Zealand; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands as sources of research into smart tourism, and went into where the RMOW is now, with a Smart Tourism Committee (STC) made up of 16 voting members including some from council, municipal staff, local businesses, cultural organizations and the community at large.

According to the report, the STC recently completed a workshop that was a “visioning journey” led by a consultant that would guide Whistler’s “collaborative approach to destination management and stewardship.”

A draft "vision" from that workshop is expected to be shared this summer, with community input to refine it, and “ensure alignment and excitement behind a collective vision of what could be. Core themes that will emerge through this vision will explore the balance of visitors and residents, community collaboration and how to be brave with our decision making.”

Kemble says in the report that support from the community and local businesses are critical to smart tourism.

“Engagement efforts will seek to garner feedback from all interest holders to foster a sense of ownership and pride in the envisioned future of Whistler's tourism industry,” it reads.

An example of community stewardship used was that of Venice, which Kemble described as “bold” in introducing a pilot day-trip tax, where non-overnight visitors must register and pay five euros per day to visit the city.

“This exemplifies a difficult policy decision that seeks to find balance amidst growing tourism and visitation pressures," he said. "The tax is designed to act as a tourism deterrent, while simultaneously generating revenue that can be reinvested to help manage their tourism volume.”

The outcomes of that pilot are still being researched both in Venice and among observers, including Whistler.

“As the [smart tourism] initiative continues to evolve, learnings from busy tourist destinations such as Venice will be reviewed to help accelerate the learning process for Whistler,” writes Kemble.

“In this way, the successful methods can be adapted or considered, and the unsuccessful ones can be avoided.”

Kemble ended his report by warning that if Whistler does not update its management practices to handle the expected continued increase in tourism, “we risk degrading the tourism and resident experience that has been carefully cultivated over time.

“We already feel the pressure of peak days, whether it is sitting in traffic, standing for hours in a lift line, or being unable to find a place to sit in our parks. If these peak days become more frequent, these issues will only intensify.”

Speaking to his report at the council meeting, Kemble said the focus of smart tourism as a concept and work being done on the RMOW level with its partners is to take advantage of the community’s strengths, while limiting whatever weaknesses come about from being popular.

“The real question is how do we increase our ability to welcome visitors while preserving the magic of what makes Whistler special,” said Kemble.

“We really need to lean in on what is Whistler and what makes us happy to be here,” he added, listing the environment and community as some of those reasons.

Community engagement with the Smart Tourism Committee-produced "vision" will take place in the second half of 2024, with a destination management plan being an end-goal in the future.

During questions and comments, all councillors that spoke to the item indicated support for smart tourism as a concept and endorsed the work done by the RMOW to get ahead of the issue of a growing provincial population and growing tourism numbers for Canada in order to ensure the community is brought along with tourism as a benefit.

Councillor Cathy Jewett highlighted how many of the examples found in the update were cultural examples, and posed the possibility that Whistler could “be the example that people look to for destination management” in the outdoor attraction space.

“Whistler to be a global leader is such a great goal, I’m looking forward to the work to get there," she said.

Coun. Ralph Forsyth, who has been appointed as chair of the STC, said that while "smart tourism" had historically been a difficult concept to define, he was pleased that work done on the file was in response to what the RMOW had heard during the last election cycle.

“The community felt left out of the tourism product, and that there was nothing for them in tourism other than employment," he said. "I am hopeful that that is responsive enough for them and they see that we’re working towards the message that they sent us.”

Mayor Jack Crompton said what was presented was an important piece of working towards sustainability as a community.

“Since the last election, whenever I talk about smart tourism with people I think of a data-forward, progressive effort to drive a tourism economy that serves Whislerites and Whistler, so people in place," he said. "That data-forward approach that is thinking in enormous scale and scope and aspiration gets me really excited.”

Crompton said he agreed with Forsyth’s assertion that smart tourism as a concept had come from the community signalling it wanted more from tourism as a sector.

“Our community felt if we didn’t manage tourism it would manage us—I think this is a great foundation on which to build,” he said.

The "smart tourism strategy" has $50,000 budgeted for it for the 2024, funded through the general operating reserve.

All councillors voted to receive the update unanimously.