Dispersion is not a magic wand for managing increased levels of tourism in the Sea to Sky region

It’s no secret that tourism is a growing industry in the province and that a lot of that growth is occurring in the Sea to Sky region. The latest provincial numbers show another banner year with 8.4% revenue growth in 2017 and 41.3% growth since 2007 (the 2017 numbers were released in the spring of 2019.)

With all of this growth, we’ve seen many of our parks, trails and attractions become increasingly busy. When that happens, there are two possible reactions. The first is to upgrade the facilities at these sites so that they can accommodate more visitors and the second is to limit visitation at these sites and disperse visitors to other locations. More often than not, the reaction in our region has been the latter:

  • In February of 2019, Destination BC launched the Sea to Sky Destination Development Strategy which includes an objective to create a visitor dispersion action plan: “Within the context of a Visitor Dispersion action plan, work with all Sea-to-Sky Corridor planning area partners to develop and abide by a policy of educational marketing, in a way that leads to responsible tourism.”
  • In recent years, BC Parks has moved to a reservation-only system for camping in Garibaldi Provincial Park and eliminated the overflow camping areas; effectively pushing large numbers of backcountry campers into areas that do not have ranger presence, food caches, or outhouses. On March 26th, 2019, it was announced that the reservation-only system would also be implemented in Joffre Lakes Provincial Park.
  • There has been significant pushback against the development of high-intensity tourism-focused commercial attractions.
  • In Deep Cove, limits are being placed on how many people are allowed on the Quarry Rock trail at any one time.
  • The District of Squamish has published rules and increased enforcement related to informal camping in the District which has pushed this group of visitors further down backroads.
  • BC Parks hired a tow-truck on a busy weekend to deal with overflow parking along the shoulder of the highway near a busy trailhead instead of implementing a shuttle service.
  • The Minister of Tourism recently suggested dispersion as a solution instead of focusing on opportunities to accommodate the increase in visitors at busy sites: “While there’s over-tourism in places like Joffre Lakes, potentially, through Destination BC and our marketing campaigns, we can help divert some of those visitors into under-represented areas…”

Although these measures may seem appropriate in isolation, I am very concerned about the negative impacts. More often than not, dispersed visitors end up on areas of crown land in our region that are lacking the policies, infrastructure, and staffing to manage the influx of visitors. Examples of the impacts include:

  • Keyhole Hotsprings has been shut down after visitors did not practice bear-safe practices and multiple bears became food habituated.
  • At a scenic lake (which I will not name but it is not Joffre Lakes,) that has no outhouses or other facilities, traffic has skyrocketed and there are now large numbers of cars parked near the trailhead in the summer. In addition to the obvious problem of human waste, firepits are appearing everywhere in the sensitive subalpine meadow and the location is being actively destroyed with each passing season.
  • The Squamish Valley Forest Service Road has seen visitor traffic nearly double over the last four years with many negative impacts observed throughout the valley.
  • Helicopter based tourism is exploding in popularity and operators are capable and free to land almost anywhere on crown land which creates unique challenges.
  • SAR call volumes continue to increase as visitors end up being pushed to sites that have no signs and unmaintained trails.

Dispersion on its own doesn’t make the problem go away. It just temporarily puts it “out of sight, out of mind.”

We need a regional strategy for how we will deal with the current and projected levels of recreation. Whether the strategy is to upgrade existing sites to handle more visitors or to build additional sites to spread the visitors across more locations, there is no possible way to move forward without additional funding for the agencies that are tasked with managing recreation. BC Parks continues to be dramatically underfunded and BC Recreation Sites and Trails operates on such a small budget, that many people are not even aware that they exist. In a presentation last year, it was shown that the budget for BC Recreation Sites and Trails in the Sea to Sky region was less than $500k.

Tourism-related provincial tax revenue was more than $1.2 billion in 2017. The vast majority of that revenue is funneled into other government programs such as education and healthcare while the recreational assets that attract tourists to our province are rapidly eroding. A more appropriate level of funding for BC Recreation Sites and Trails in the region would be in the neighbourhood of $5-$10 million.

Here are four things that I think area politicians should be doing. I acknowledge gratefully that many local politicians are already taking action in these areas.

1) Do not be a part of the problem
Local governments and local destination marketing organizations sometimes play a role in irresponsible dispersion in two ways: A) By actively encouraging people to visit places that do not have adequate facilities and B) By taking actions to limit visitation at specific locations that will only serve to push the problem into neighbouring areas that are even more sensitive.

2) Be a part of the solution
Within your own community, be proactive about finding ways to responsibly accommodate the influx in visitors. This may include the provision of temporary car-camping areas in the summer, upgrades to trails, shuttle services, etc. When a location can no longer be upgraded to handle additional visitors, develop an alternate location to handle the overflow.

3) Stand up against provincial initiatives that are a part of the problem
The provincial government is taking a completely irrational approach to tourism management. Different provincial government agencies are using our tax dollars to head in incongruent directions. Destination BC uses our tax dollars to massively promote tourism. BC Parks uses our tax dollars to implement reservation-only systems and to pay rangers to turn people away from our parks. BC Recreation Sites and Trails is given almost no tax dollars but is forced to deal with the brunt of the overflow visitors that are now dispersed onto crown land. Local leaders need to play a more active role in demanding that the provincial government start acting like a single team with a single tax-payer funded budget that is optimizing toward a single objective of sustainable tourism management.

4) Demand increased funding
Tourism is a major contributor to the economy in the Sea to Sky region and contributes significant tax revenue to the provincial government. However, if a reasonable amount of those proceeds are not re-invested back into the assets, the industry will no longer be able to grow, let alone continue at current levels of visitation.

Happy Hiking,

Steve Jones