Tourism Kelowna is the first organization in the Thompson-Okanagan region to launch a new industry sustainability initiative.
Created by the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, the Biosphere Certification Adhesion Program will be rolled out in Kelowna first, followed by Kamloops and then across the region.
Following TOTA’s “Drive for Sustainability” initiative, the concept brings together community stakeholders to collaborate and commit to long-term stewardship of local tourism while offering visitors an “authentic, remarkable experience.”
“The visitor economy is vital to economic development in our region but with that comes recognition of the need for responsible tourism development,” said Lisanne Ballantyne, president and CEO of Tourism Kelowna.
Myra Canyon Ranch and Adventure Park were among the first Tourism Kelowna stakeholders ready to quickly sign on to the initiative.
“It gives us a great opportunity to be a part of something that is so important to the future direction of our industry and has the potential to further connect our region,” said Kathrin Von Andrian, owner/operator of Myra Canyon Ranch.
TOTA identified a need five years ago to both expand the tourism business window from what was traditionally 45 days in the summer to 200 days across spring, summer and fall.
To reach that goal, TOTA chose to develop a philosophy to promote tourism as an environment sustainable industry that protects local environment, social, cultural and economic systems, along with the need to recognize and incorporate the Indigenous people’s history of the region as part of the tourism experience.
Last year, TOTA became one of only 20 tourist destinations in the world to receive a biosphere destination certificate, accredited by the Responsible Tourism Institute for having met 137 certification criteria, benchmarks in line with the 17 United Nations declared sustainable development goals and the Paris agreement on global climate change.
Glenn Mandziuk, CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, said the desire is for tourism to enhance and sustain its member communities, not over-saturate a tourist destination at a given time of the year that proves disruptive to communities and fails to recognize opportunities to spread out that tourism season window.
“We are already seeing benefits of that strategy. We have gone from 45 days to 110 days where 80 per cent of the tourism revenue is generated. We are starting to see significant tourism activity across the region in September which traditionally had been a very slow month,” Mandziuk said.
He cites growth in interest generated by Indigenous culture, organic food movement and development of rail trail projects as providing a strong underpinning for a sustainable tourism industry, one not just reliant on fun in the sun during the prime July and August months.
‘We want to see a strong six to eight month tourism season across the region,” he said.
He said the 200-day seasonal goal offers benefits to tourism businesses in retaining employees and borrowing money from banks for improvements.
“If you rely on a 45-day window, you can have a major fire and wipe out your whole season,” he noted. “Diversify and expand our tourism season has been our goal and we believe this environment sustainability method is the best way to approach it.”
Mandziuk said he was heartened to hear TOTA’s philosophy gaining widespread recognition at the recent B.C. Tourism Conference held in Kelowna.
“We’ve been thinking and talking about this for awhile but it was magic to our ears to hear others talking about these same issues at the conference,” he said.
“We have to address issues like carbon footprint and climate change, we need to understand it and say now this is our new reality, and always reflect that in our decision-making process.”
Another strong theme emerging from the tourism conference centred around the use of technology and social media to connect with potential tourists in a much more personal and interactive way, as opposed to the bricks-and-mortar visitor information centre concept.
Still, Mandziuk said TOTA will continue to operate its tourism information centre on the Okanagan Connector near Peachland and looks forward to the addition of the new Tourism Kelowna tourist info facility now under construction at the foot of Queensway Avenue on the lakefront.
“It is very intriguing to see our tourist info centre already seeing visitation numbers 100 per cent higher than this point last year. It is one of the busiest visitors centres in the province. I think it’s a case of having that facility in the right place at the right time,” he noted.
He anticipates the downtown Kelowna centre, expected to be open by the July long weekend, will also be well utilized being in a high volume tourist traffic area.
“I think it’s going to be a great addition to the city,” he said.
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