How B.C. manages the complications of combining tourism and the environment

Tourism Status Report: Environmental stewardship. B.C. has its hands full protecting one of its biggest industries while trying to develop others. Meanwhile, it's not clear that the environment is top-of-mind for most people

Part 5 of the BCBusiness Tourism Status Report looks at how B.C. has its hands full protecting one of its biggest industries while trying to develop others. Meanwhile, it’s not clear that the environment is top-of-mind for most people

Anyone who’s ever visited B.C. can figure out the province’s main selling point in about five minutes. It’s all over posters and press conferences—heck, it’s on our licence plates: Beautiful British Columbia.

But as the tourism industry gets larger by the year, it has increasingly come face-to-face with another key sector of the B.C. economy—the extraction of natural resources. Although many development advocates and environmentalists alike will agree that it doesn’t always mean resources decisions are black and white, the financial gap between the two industries sometimes puts tourism’s most attractive quality at risk.

“Tourism is not the biggest revenue earner,” says Brian White, head of the tourism and hospitality management program at Royal Roads University in Victoria, referring to the fact that industries dependent on natural resources, such as mining and forestry, tend to make more money.

For White, that disparity means that tourism isn’t getting the “seat at the table” it deserves. “There is one fundamental problem with tourism in the province, because if you say that tourism is environmentally based, then why doesn’t it have any legislative capacity to intervene in managing land resources?” he asks. 

“This goes back years and years to progressive cuts where they’d just do major clear-cuts and destroy the visual immunity which tourism depends upon.” 

Of course, any discussion about conservation versus development in B.C. eventually turns to pipelines. “Just the threat of [a spill] has a negative effect on people’s sense of what this place means, what it’s all about, what it means to come and visit here, what it means to invest in moving your business here,” says Ben West, Victoria-based executive director of Tanker Free BC, an organization set up to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. 

George Heyman makes the same point when asked about his government’s role in land management decisions that balance the needs of the resources and tourism sectors. “We know tourism supports 133,000 jobs in B.C. and generates $8 billion in economic activity,” the minister of environment and climate change strategy said in a statement. “That’s one of the reasons we have been steadfast in our defence of our land, waters and coast in the face of increased heavy oil moving through B.C.” 

Some B.C. development sites may be lined with protesters, but do visitors and residents give much thought to environmental stewardship? 

Ian Powell is managing director of Victoria’s Inn at Laurel Point, the province’s first carbon-neutral hotel. He notes that guests typically don’t pay much attention to the inn’s award-winning ventures into sustainability, such as using ocean water to power its air conditioning. 

“We get feedback from customers, and we ask all sorts of questions, like: How was the overall stay? Were there any particular members of staff that made you feel welcome? How important to you are the green initiatives?” Powell explains. “And [the last one] is always, always, always the lowest score by a yardstick.” 

Royal Roads’ White argues that tourism’s large workforce—the industry is the province’s No. 3 employer, according to the Ministry of Labour—relies on B.C.’s natural beauty. “It’s a steady supply of community income, and that depends on the environment,” he says, observing that a big chunk of tourism revenue comes from smaller places. “Because if the environment goes sideways and has been damaged, then tourism gets damaged as well.”