Oh I remember this. Tourists.
I live on a very accessible island very close to Vancouver and it’s very easy to get here. Unlike other islands in our archipelago, we are mostly a place of full time residents, with a smaller number of summer families that come over. We have A LOT of short term rentals here which are very hard to track because they kind of hide behind a “contact the host for more details” in the VRBO and AirBnb listings, and like everyone living in a tourist spot with big housing affordability and accessibility issues, I have many opinions about that. Some contradictory even!
We have just had our first long weekend of the summer and as usual, there is the litany of complaints about tourists who just can’t seem to figure out the simple things that we all take for granted. It’s fun to share some stories I suppose, but it is disturbing to see friends and neighbours openly describing how hostile they were, yelling at groups of people or impatiently chewing out people who weren’t able to figure out our – to the untrained eye – totally mystifying ferry marshalling system.
More seriously, tourism is a mixed blessing for communities like ours. Day visitors do provide an massive injection of revenue for the businesses we love that can’t always make it through a dark wet winter on local trade alone. But day trippers can create huge impacts on the land here, and recently the artist who created the lovely piece of public art pictured above which was hidden away in the forest, removed it because too many people were wandering around on private land trying to find it and it was contributing to a lot of erosion and a heightened fire danger. (Also it was a piece about extinction and the fact that it is gone now is a poignant denouement)
Having people come and stay for longer stretches was always a goal we tried to pursue when I was on our Economic Development Committee. We wanted people to sink into the place, come for retreats and be hosted here. I myself have hosted hundreds of people here at our retreat centres at Xenia, Rivendell, the Lodge at the Old Dorm and the Bowen Island Lodge. The advantage of this is that as hosts we get to help people visit here by giving them some local advice and knowledge to help deepen their experience of the place, and also help them understand our local culture. This is a beautiful and special place and it works it’s magic on you if you are hosted into it well. When you are visitor in another place it helps to have a sense of the context in which you are temporarily living.
In the last 10 years however, like almost everywhere, Instagram and AirBnB/VRBO have created a situation where people are coming to this place to have context-free experiences and that creates a lot of issues including environmental impact, fire danger, unsafe situations on the roads, loud stuff happening in quiet places, conflict, and a litany of smaller irritations that make daily living here harder during a busy weekend. Our grocery stores sometimes run out of staples. Local staff are treated horribly at local eateries as they cope to deal with HUGE numbers while simultaneously getting slagged for slow service. Visitors then experience long waits for their food and leave shitty reviews on yelp. It really can be a nightmare.
There is no curing this, really. We try hard to give some fleeting context to visitors who are rushing to find the perfect Instagram spot or the woodfired pizza they heard so much about. Instagram in particular creates a kind of weird cult of personal branding that casts all experiences as a good time, without maybe explaining how you spent the day tramping through a local’s backyard to find the mastadon, irritating dozens of people along the way, getting frustrated and annoyed when people wouldn’t tell you exactly where it was. Instead,a perfect phot of a majestic creature perched atop a bluff. Instagram promotes outcomes based tourism. If that is your approach, save your energy and just steal my photo of it. The thing is gone now.
So what to do? Well, I try the remember that I’m a tourist every time I leave this little island. I have travelled extensively for work and pleasure and I’m aware that I do so many dumb things when I visit other places with a complete lack of awareness of my own impact. I have no idea what places the locals consider “theirs” or how different local cultures work. And of course it’s even worse when I find a lovely little spot off the beaten path, which is full of the delightful locals you won’t meet in the regular tourist haunts. I make sure to share my experiences with friends and family on social media. (I know this sweet little restaurant in southern Estonia run by a Seto family who will comp you food and drink if you start a singing session of folk songs. And they will bring out the good liquor too!) But I have no idea whether they enjoy me renting a little house in their neighbourhood or not. I can’t read Estonian, so I’m not sure what firestorm we have stirred up on the local Facebook page, but I know I must have at some point! I’ve certainly been yelled at by people who assure me that the path DOES NOT GO THROUGH THERE even when it OBVIOUSLY does, and given dirty looks and audible eyerolls as I spend 10 minutes in front of a ticket dispenser on the Frankfurt or Tokyo metros trying to figure out the simple act of buying a ticket from a machine, a task which requires extensive implicit knowledge and is different in every city. (And eventually out of sheer impatience, someone steps up to help, but sometimes not)
In as much as we need to help visitors understand their impact on our little place, we have long been a draw for weekend and summer visitors and living with tourists fumbling through our community is nothing new. I try to be that “friendly helpful local” that gives them some insight into what it’s like to live here. And if I’m feeling riled up or likely to be driven to anger or frustration, I avoid our village on busy weekends unless I manage to prepare myself to meet people acting like I do when I trample through lovely little Mexican villages and Scottish Islands and Hawaiian farming settlements.
All I can offer is a heuristic: assume good intentions and try to be kind. And if you come over to Nexwlelexwm/Bowen Island, give me a call beforehand and I’ll let you know how the ferry marshalling works.
(ETA: Nancy has written a nice post that links to this one, and I want acknowledge her wisdom and nuance on the use of the phrase “assume good intentions.” That works in this context and is advice for me to use when meeting tourists who may be unaware of their impact. It is wise not to use this as advice for others to take, especially in contexts of injustice,oppression and trauma. I’ll leave my original wording in, but my practice is to use that heuristic personally.)
I am both fortunate and grateful to have been multiply hosted on your little island. And for the reminder of how our presence might seem to others as we explore the world looking for our own experiences.
And you are welcome back anytime!
[…] is funny, now I’m seeing the words “good intent” everywhere I look, and I am consciously trying to reshape my language towards grace and […]
Thanks for the interweaving!
I think we create a challenge when we speak in terms of “tourist industry”. We don’t have visitor industries, which implies a difference in attitude. Tourists are there to be harvested, often by those from outside the community creating features inside it. Visitors are there to be hosted. We encourage tourists to consume. Seagulls- fly in, squawk a lot, eat our food, shit on us and leave. Visitors engage, learn and exchange. It’s not that tourists are malign- they behave the way we market the experience, Instagram and all.
Maybe we need to reflect on whether we are willing to put our communities up for sale?
Thank you for this reflection, Chris. Richard Merrick’s comment above gets to the heart of the issue, I think. Happily, those who support tourism on regional and national levels are asking those same questions, in Canada and around the world. I wrote a bit about it here (article link below).
“[W]hat if we talked not about the ‘local tourism industry’ but about the ‘local hosting community’? Imagine if the emphasis were on helping hosts understand who they are together in community, in this place, at this time in history. Imagine if they could be brought together in regular reflection about the invitation they want to extend and what flourishing might look like for everyone involved. What if they could be supported in discovering ‘sufficiently coherent yet entirely citizen-driven initiatives that are filled with personal connection and significance,’ as we saw with Flanders Fields? Imagine if a local self-organizing network could be enlivened and set into motion, powered by stories of meaningful encounter and transformation, as the Holiday Participation Centre has demonstrated? What if the mandate of Destination Marketing Offices changed from ‘marketing destinations’ to ‘hosting the hosts’?”
I’d love to know your thoughts about this vision, Chris.
Years ago Tim Merry had an idea called “Village as a Venue” which we practiced in Mahone Bay and on Bowen Island a bit. The idea was to link together accommodations, eateries, spaces and the outdoors into a kind of networked hosting facility. We even explored economies of scale on Bowen like having a shared laundry or cleaning service. Friends in The Burren in Ireland do a similar thing. In the years leading up to the pandemic, especially with people choosing to stay closer to home as land and housing prices skyrocketed we became overwhelmed by tourism and the struggles of local staff became paramount. I made a White Paper on this (written in Estonia as it happens) and the concept seems still sound. But it is hard to carefully irrigate a garden when the hose is broken and the water is flooding everywhere.
We need this to knit together disparate parts of our public school system!?
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