Am­bi­tious Vail wel­comes “sus­tain­able tourism”

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ja­son Blevins

Born from an idea that cor­ralled lo­cal busi­nesses to em­brace en­ergy-sav­ing strate­gies, the re­sort-an­chored town of Vail is try­ing to be­come the con­ti­nent’s first sus­tain­able tourist des­ti­na­tion cer­ti­fied through the Global Sus­tain­able Tourism Coun­cil.

So, first, what is “sus­tain­able tourism?”

“It’s tourism that is com­pat­i­ble with the com­mu­nity,” said Mag­dalena Muir, a Cana­dian pro­fes­sor of en­ergy science and an au­di­tor with Green Des­ti­na­tions.

She spent a week mea­sur­ing Vail’s progress to­ward in­volv­ing unit­ing lo­cals and guests in ef­forts to build a vi­brant econ­omy an­chored in a healthy ecol­ogy.

Many com­mu­ni­ties have tourism im­posed on them, es­pe­cially in pur­pose­built re­sorts such as many Colorado high-coun­try des­ti­na­tions, and that can lead to an us-ver­sus-them men­tal­ity pit­ting lo­cals against vis­i­tors. En­gag­ing the com­mu­nity in the mis­sion of driv­ing tourism can help re­duce that fric­tion, Muir said.

“The whole point of this des­ig­na­tion is to find the syn­ergy be­tween the com­mu­nity and tourism,” Muir said. “If the com­mu­nity is in­volved, you are not as likely to have a de­vel­op­ment over­ride their in­ter­ests. Events are sched­uled when they work best, and maybe tourism rev­enue is used to build trails or recre­ational ameni­ties lo­cal res­i­dents also use.”

Sus­tain­able is the hot new buzz­word in tourism cir­cles — es­pe­cially as host-

ing vis­i­tors be­comes a roar­ing eco­nomic en­gine of many ru­ral and ur­ban economies while lo­cals des­per­ately fight to pro­tect the re­sources and ap­peal that draw the out­siders.

Vail can get busy. The town of 5,500 peo­ple hosts as many as 2.8 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

And while en­ter­tain­ing guests is the back­bone of Colorado’s moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties, align­ing the swelling hordes of vis­i­tors with lo­cal val­ues has be­come the new mis­sion.

The sus­tain­abil­ity ef­fort in Vail was born in 2013, as the val­ley pre­pared for the 2015 Alpine World Ski Cham­pi­onships. The first phase was en­rolling lo­cal busi­nesses in Sus­tain­able Travel In­ter­na­tional’s “Ac­tively Green” pro­gram. That pro­gram now counts more than 50 Vail busi­nesses that are em­brac­ing sus­tain­able busi­ness prac­tices.

East West Part­ners has cer­ti­fied all seven of the Vail Val­ley prop­er­ties it man­ages, in­clud­ing the Westin River­front Re­sort in Avon, a 232-room lux­ury ho­tel where more than 100 en­vi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives have been launched, in­clud­ing an 18-bed com­mu­nity gar­den for em­ploy­ees.

“These cer­ti­fi­ca­tions hold us ac­count­able. It’s re­ally about prac­tic­ing what you preach,” said East West’s Derek Schmidt at a meet­ing with Muir, who was ea­ger to hear about ef­forts to en­gage com­mu­nity, em­ploy­ees and guests in en­vi­ron­men­tal goals.

Other busi­ness own­ers of­fered their work: Vail Val­ley An­glers launched biketo-the-river fish­ing trips and en­cour­ages guests to bring their own wa­ter bot­tles. Amer­i­can Plumb­ing, Heat­ing and So­lar Inc. now sends three times more waste to re­cy­cling bins than to the land­fill. A short-term rental com­pany switched all the light bulbs in its rental homes to LED.

“It’s re­ally brought a dif­fer­ent level of aware­ness of what we could be do­ing and should be do­ing and how much is in our con­trol,” said West Vail Liquor Mart coowner Lau­rie Mullen, who in­stalled en­ergy-ef­fi­cient cool­ing and light­ing equip­ment to shave her util­ity bill by half. “We’ve found that so many sus­tain­abil­ity strate­gies are within our con­trol.”

Muir mea­sured Vail’s sus­tain­abil­ity po­ten­tial against 44 cri­te­ria. That in­cludes tourism man­age­ment, re­source pro­tec­tion such as open space and parks, as­set pro­tec­tion, such as Vail Re­sort’s Epic Prom­ise, that de­liv­ers funds for con­ser­va­tion, in­ter­pre­tive sites for vis­i­tors, trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture such as em­ployee buses and bike lanes, wildlife pro­tec­tion, cli­mate-change adap­ta­tion, re­cy­cling and en­ergy-sav­ing pro­grams, af­ford­able hous­ing, em­ploy­ment and a gen­eral cul­ture of sus­tain­abil­ity.

The town de­liv­ered more than 260 doc­u­ments to Muir to sup­port the case for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. She was busy, spend­ing more than 12 hours a day in meet­ings with ma­jor busi­nesses such as Vail Re­sorts and smaller op­er­a­tions.

“The net­work we have built is in­cred­i­ble and I’m in­spired by what every­one is do­ing,” said Kim Lang­maid, who serves on the Vail Town Coun­cil and is vice pres­i­dent of the Walk­ing Moun­tain Science Cen­ter, where she heads sus­tain­abil­ity and ste­ward­ship pro­grams. “Our hope is that if this goes well for Vail, maybe a cou­ple other com­mu­ni­ties will fol­low and we could do this at the state level.”

Colorado’s tourism cheer­lead­ers are deep into the sus­tain­abil­ity move­ment.

The state’s new “Field Guide” pro­gram of­fers itin­er­ar­ies that push vis­i­tors off the well-worn tourist track with hopes of fu­el­ing tourism growth in over­looked cor­ners of Colorado while al­le­vi­at­ing pres­sure in the most pop­u­lar ar­eas. The state is work­ing with the Leave No Trace Cen­ter for Out­door Ethics to de­velop what would be the cen­ter’s first state model for sus­tain­able tourism.

The goal, Colorado Tourism Of­fice chief Cathy Rit­ter said, is a se­ries of an­nual ini­tia­tives urg­ing vis­i­tors to tread lightly and re­spect Colorado’s nat­u­ral re­sources.

“We are mak­ing some great strides,” Rit­ter said. “It’s ex­cit­ing for Vail and it’s ex­cit­ing for Colorado. It would be won­der­ful to have a shin­ing ex­am­ple of how sus­tain­abil­ity can be done in our own state.”

The hope at the state level is get­ting the right peo­ple in the right places. That means lo­cals would cel­e­brate their vis­i­tors, who would spend their money while em­brac­ing Colorado’s nat­u­ral re­sourcean­chored val­ues.

It’s go­ing to be a team ef­fort, Lang­maid said. The White River Na­tional For­est, the town, Vail Re­sorts, the lo­cal wa­ter dis­trict and lo­cals are go­ing to have to join to­gether to make sus­tain­abil­ity work, she said.

News last week that Vail Re­sorts plans to use 100 per­cent re­new­able en­ergy, re­cy­cle all of its waste and off­set its for­est im­pacts shows sup­port for the town’s sus­tain­abil­ity goals, Lang­maid said.

“Peo­ple are com­mit­ted and want to be proac­tive and want to take con­trol of their com­mu­ni­ties to en­sure a sus­tain­able fu­ture,” she said.

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