Here is a great article from Canadian Geographic that describes many different approaches small communities are taking to addressing the impact of tourism in their communities. When I look at the examples of the small towns in this article I see some commonalities and some differences with our own little island.
The small communities in this article are Rossland, BC, Manitoulin Island in Ontario and Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are all small communities quite far from larger cities and they are all quite self-contained. Every community has a chance to take control of their local economy because unless they do so there is very little activity that comes from outside. in the traditional tourist model, people come and visit, perhaps stay a while and local business compete and collaborate for the tourist dollars. Typically these kinds of communities close up shop in the off season and folks try to stretch their summer dollars over the lean years.
What is different about Rossland, Manitoulin and Fogo Island is that they are able to build a year round local economy as well because, unlike Bowen Island, people don’t leave every day for work. If the local economy cannot sustain jobs and enterprises throughout the year, it cannot sustain a diverse business sector that has a chance to work its regenerative magic.
Here on Bowen Island, we live very close to a major city and the vast majority of our residents either commute physically or virtually into that city to do their work. People like Caitlin and I, who run small consulting businesses typically don’t serve local clients in the same way that our restaurants, builders and services do. In the cases of Fogo and Rossland, some of the key attractors in the communities attracted other businesses around them to provide specialized services. With very little money coming in from outside the community, a strong attractor like a ski hill or a boutique hotel can generate businesses around itself and people can create a local livelihood. Those folks will need to spend money locally on services like food and drugs and home repair and so a contained virtuous cycle can be triggered. The key is to diversify the economy as quickly as possible, so that everything does not hinge on the single big attractor in the system. Rossland seems acutely aware of this, having been a boom town in the past.
I don’t know what the pathway is for Bowen Island, but we face a number of challenges to making our tourism regenerative rather than extractive. Currently we get inundated with day trippers who like to wander through the village and do some shopping or hike the trails on the island. Most don’t stay but those that do use AirBnBs and VRBOs as well as traditional B&Bs and our four or so retreat centres. There is no hotel or inn that can serve people the way they are served on Fogo Island and there is isn’t much intention put behind hosting people in our natural spaces, although that may be changing with a new park proposal from Metro Vancouver that, for the first time, would ask our community to allow supervised camping in a primarily walk/bike-in campground.
What makes things very challenging on Bowen Island is that local residents can be very vocal about the impact of tourism,much to the negative. The village is too busy, visitors are rightfully confused by the implicit culture of the place, including how ferry etiquette works, and how tolerant local neighbourhoods are of parties in AirBnBs or on the boats moored in Mannion Bay. Most residents, if asked, would tell you that we have to address the tourism situation, but few could tell you how. ALmost everyone would say that bringing in more people is not desirable, although we can’t do much about being a 20 minute ferry ride from an urban area of 2.5 million people, many of whom love having easy access to the natural landscape of our forests and seas.
One thing that seems to stop us taking a regenerative approach and creating anchor enterprises locally is the fact that Bowen islanders seem to enjoy privacy and quiet and sustained high real estate values. Creating a new local enterprise is an absolute exhausting endeavour that often requires special kinds of permits and changes to zoning. In some cases the opposition to these proposal has resulted in lawsuits, hostile neighbourhood relations and a kind of general appeal to the fear of noise, traffic, overcrowding and diminished real estate prices and quality of life. The chance to develop a key tourism asset like the Fogo Island Inn or an Indigenous Park or something like a destination downhill mountain biking trail system, all of which COULD be possible here, faces a huge uphill battle from people who live close to where these things could be built and who doubt the ability of any government or organization to effectively manage the use and impact.
Additionally, these anchor enterprises are unlikely to generate much in the way of local services. We live merely 20 minutes from the Metro Vancouver area. Already huge numbers of services come from contractors who come over on morning ferries and leave in the evening. Many of these services used to be provided by local people, but the housing affordability crisis (partly but not completely driven by AirBnBs, VRBOs and other short term rentals) have made living on Bowen a near impossibility for service industry workers and those who are trying to start up a business. If you need $2500 or $3000 a month just to house yourself, it’s tricky to raise the capital to start a business, nor is it easy to develop a market on island where already the cost of goods and services is subject to a ferry premium.
Our local economy is incredibly leaky. Most of the money people earn here is spent off-island, and that’s just a reality of location.
At one point when I was on the Community Economic Development Committee I scoped out a concept for hosting tourism on Bowen called “Village as a Venue,” based on an idea developed by my friend Tim Merry and his mates in Mahone Bay Nova Scotia, a community very much like ours. The idea was to organize the hospitality industry here through shared services like housekeeping, booking and events planning to create essentially a big distributed hotel that could host events like arts festivals, Ultimate tournaments, theatre and music, golf camps, marine biology conferences and leadership retreats. I prototyped this idea more than 25 times through week long retreats we offered between 2004 and 2019 and it has efficacy. We even started organizing some of the services in some early conversations.
Post-pandemic, I’m not sure now. I have seen local entrepreneurs create new businesses doing cool things, such a cidery or a distributed education program and I have seen them face fierce opposition by neighbours and legal challenges to the very idea that they could use temporary use permits to establish their businesses and services. In order to make something like this happen here, we would need to revisit our community plan – which is long overdue – and I would be very interested to see where we are as a community. I think folks like the idea of regenerative tourism in theory, but my suspicion is that we all carry many unexamined ideas about how it would affect us and there are very vocal folks who are very quick to pounce on ideas that would bring more people to our little island paradise.
But this article DOES inspire and as I have no plans to leave here any time soon, I await and observe these ideas and the conversation around them with curiosity.