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California’s Tourism Industry Could Be a Boon for Local Communities

Back CalMatters Aug 29, 2019 By Costas Christ & Caroline Beteta

California continues to surf a huge economic wave with year-after-year tourism growth, generating more than $140 billion for the state last year and supporting the livelihoods of millions of residents. But as any big wave surfer knows, the thrill of success also comes with perils, and in the case of tourism, the situation can get gnarly fast. 

In 1950, there were approximately 25 million international tourists. Fast forward to 2019, and there are now 1.4 billion tourists, a number projected to increase to 2 billion by 2030. Tourism has surged to become a pillar of national and regional economies, generating $8.8 trillion globally last year and accounting for one in 10 of all jobs worldwide.

Managing this swell presents the challenge. Witness the rising problems of over tourism sweeping the globe from Bali to Barcelona: environmental degradation, strained infrastructure, growing tension between locals and visitors. This is why we believe that in California and around the world tourism should never be about conquering a place. It should be about enhancing it.

The question of how to make tourism an opportunity and not a threat to local communities and the planet is what gave birth to the concept of sustainable tourism. It is based upon three key pillars:

  • Environmentally friendly practices.
  • Support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage.
  • Tangible social and economic benefits to local people. 

When tourism is done the right way — the sustainable way — it becomes a powerful force for protecting biodiversity, improving livelihoods, and preserving cultural heritage both now and for future generations.

With peak summer days bringing waves of visitors eager to experience California’s great natural beauty and vibrant cultural diversity, Visit California has embarked on a statewide tourism assessment guided by a firm belief that tourism must:

  • Enhance and enrich the visitor’s experience of California.
  • Contribute to a quality of life for Californians that cannot be sustained by local populations alone.
  • Respect the history and unique culture of every community.
  • Contribute to California’s economy in ways that are equitably distributed and support stable employment.
  • Influence the appropriate and effective dispersal of visitors across geographies and need periods.
  • Ensure that our natural resources are used responsibly and cared for by locals and visitors alike.
  • Honor and preserve the natural beauty of California.

This more far-sighted approach to tourism planning is underway. The Community Association of Big Sur is embarking on a process to develop a Destination Stewardship Plan focused on sustainable tourism practices to harness the positive potential of tourism, while avoiding the pitfalls that can result from rapid tourism growth overwhelming local resources. It is the start of a shift within Visit California to transition from mainly focusing on destination marketing to also focusing on destination management.

The question is not whether destination stewardship can deliver on its promise to help make the world, and California, a better place. It can and does. 

Rather, the key question is how far we can take sustainable tourism principles and practices to become the foundation for planning California’s tourism future. And that involves everyone — community members, businesses, non-profit groups, municipalities and the state — working together to advance a model for tourism that we can all be proud of and that can serve as an inspiration to travel destinations in California and beyond. 

At Visit California, the aim is to surf the tourism wave to its fullest potential as a force for long-term economic good. If ever there was a place that can help lead the positive transformation of the travel industry through innovation and best practices, that place is California. It is in our DNA. 

We helped give birth to Earth Day back in the 1970s, and we remain the epicenter for sustainable living, from farm-to-table culinary concepts to the back-to-the-land movement to renewable energy. The spirit of sustainability is the spirit of California. 

Costas Christ is founder and chief executive officer of Beyond Green Travel and a senior advisor for sustainable tourism at National Geographic, info@beyondgreentravel.com. Caroline Beteta is president and CEO of Visit California, cbeteta@visitcalifornia.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. Comstock’s is a CalMatters media partner.