Published 1 year ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: North Lake Tahoe Visitors Bureau
Tourism must grapple with its place alongside growing and egregious social and environmental concerns. The Meaningful Travel Summit used Lake Tahoe as a case study of challenges and solutions for a specific destination; but everyone must reflect on these “global issues that need to be addressed, no matter where you work, or from what sector.”
Historically, tourism events have focused on operational aspects of the industry
— such as crafting destination-management plans, establishing relationships to
build out supply chains, or creating new tour itineraries — as though these
actions existed in a sterilized bubble. Between the branded swag bags and
sponsored happy hours; conversations about the climate crisis, equity and
inclusion; and tourism’s invisible
burdens are often
conveniently glossed over, thereby exacerbating the negative environment and
socio-cultural impacts travel has on the environment, local people and their
communities, and cultural heritage.
Just as society in general faces down a host of global challenges, tourism is,
as well; and it is (slowly) evolving in response. These previously sidelined
issues are increasingly prioritized at industry gatherings — and occasionally
they take center stage in a way that is both sobering and inspiring.
Last week’s Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel
Summit offered a blueprint for how
this can work: Instead of simply setting down roots in a destination for three
days before moving on (as many travelers do), organizers artfully used the
event’s scenic North Lake Tahoe, California location to illustrate tourism’s
negative impacts while highlighting solutions to local challenges and
opportunities for travel to have a positive impact.
“We will reflect on how our industry can do better: How can we take local
considerations into account in our decision making, and form strong partnerships
with local organizations and Indigenous Peoples who benefit their communities
and environment?” posited Tourism Cares CEO Greg Takehara in his opening
remarks of the event. “How can we build inclusivity and belonging into our
products? How can we begin to tackle climate issues? How can we think about
intergenerational responsibility and apply it to our work?”
Takehara’s comments were more than hypothetical questions; they were an
invitation for attendees to lean in instead of shy away — dominating
conversations between sessions and encouraging attendees to commit to ongoing
Lake Tahoe has found itself in the crosshairs of the
COVID-19 pandemic and
climate crisis. While many destinations lacked tourists over the last couple
years, Tahoe buckled under the weight of
as people moved to or visited the area during lockdowns or while shifting to
remote work — which impacted traffic patterns and created excessive waste. The
climate crisis has changed the area’s snow patterns and lake temperature, and
is now a legitimate environmental and public safety concern. Wrapped around all
of this is the impact that colonization, gentrification and tourism have had on
the Wa∙šiw (Washoe) people, who are aboriginal stewards of the land in
and around the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“The removal of Wá∙šiw people from the land and increase in tourism to the Lake
Tahoe Basin has negatively impacted an area that is not only renowned for its
natural beauty and pristine waters but is now in dire need of rehabilitation and
protection,” said Herman Filmore, culture and language resources director
for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California,
reading from a land acknowledgement that opened each day’s sessions and clearly
hung on the speaker’s podium throughout the duration of the conference.
In a destination such as Lake Tahoe, travelers are drawn to beaches and bays.
However, places are highly interconnected and complex; and it’s essential to
consider the ecosystem holistically, which is why it’s just as important — if
not more so — to care for the area’s meadows and tributaries, and to center the
Wá∙šiw in its ongoing care and revitalization.
“The Wá∙šiw people lived a simple lifestyle that allowed them to maintain their
connection to the earth, a lifestyle that kept Wá∙šiw people in tune with the
changing environment,” said Rhiana Jones, environmental director of the
Washoe Tribe Environmental Protection Department.
It’s not that tourism in Lake Tahoe shouldn’t exist — but it needs to be
approached differently and more respectfully and responsibly. On that front,
Jones highlighted three areas requiring careful consideration when developing
travel products and promoting tourism in the Lake Tahoe region (but also
relevant beyond), so that this holistic perspective is kept top of mind:
Justice and sustainability: Are all human beings involved in the
situation acknowledged and cared for? Which humans and creatures are
directly impacted by a challenge and/or will be challenged in the future?
Sufficiency and compassion: Do all people and creatures have access to
needed resources to live and flourish? Who defines sufficiency, especially
for flora and fauna threatened by extinction?
Solidarity and participation: Who are all of the stakeholders in the
situation? Who is particularly vulnerable?
“The Wá∙šiw tribe is very concerned about the environmental impact that tourism
has on the Lake Tahoe Basin and what we can do to protect the natural resources
and archeological and cultural sites,” Jones said. “Rather than discouraging
tourist groups from coming to Tahoe, we want to educate and inform tourism
groups about what sustainable tourism should look like, to ask visitors to
respect our homelands, to obey the rules and regulations in place that protect
the lake, and to please consider what each individual can do to protect this
area so that visitors and tourists can continue to visit the lake.”
“In the Tahoe Basin today, there are plans and discussions about this idea of
destination stewardship,” Filmore added, acknowledging many environmental and
tourism agencies collectively prioritizing sustainable tourism in the area.
“They are working in the best interest of the Tahoe Basin, even if that means
it’s not in the interest of tourism in general.”
undertaken by the Wá∙šiw tribe include removing invasive conifers and restoring
the natural environment at Meeks Meadow, and fire restoration in the
Carson Valley — both of which underscore the need to care for the local
community and environment so that travelers, in turn, can enjoy the Tahoe Valley
safely and sustainably.
This reality brings those often sidelined, difficult travel-related
conversations full circle: Lake Tahoe, specifically, is grappling with
wildfires, increased costs of living, and waste-management problems. Its
resiliency and adaptation in these tumultuous times requires holistic thinking,
a wide diversity of voices at the table (chief among them, the Wá∙šiw people),
and recognition that tourism is actually not at the center of the
Extrapolated further, the entire tourism industry must grapple with its place
alongside the many faces of the climate crisis, gentrification, environmental
degradation, and racial injustices. Its resiliency and ability to adapt requires
centering Indigenous stewardship practices, inviting diverse perspectives during
strategic planning, having hard conversations, and fostering an industry
community unafraid of radically changing how it operates — and how its
stakeholders work together to chart a path forward.
At the Tourism Cares Meaningful Travel Summit, Lake Tahoe was used as a case
study of challenges and solutions from a specific destination; but, as noted by
Takehara, significant change happens when everyone reflects on these “global
issues that need to be addressed, no matter where you work, or from what
Published May 25, 2022 2pm EDT / 11am PDT / 7pm BST / 8pm CEST
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.