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?”
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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 action.
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 overtourism 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 “wildfire season” 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.”
Current projects 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 conversation.
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 sector.”