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Sustainability makes headway in Whistler, but the work never stops

Tourists expect responsible resource use at all levels


Sustainable travel is the up-and-coming catchphrase as tourists, resort and hotel managers alike look toward that most elusive goal: the zero operating footprint.

A recent report from the Center for Sustainable Travel (CRT) in Washington, DC, highlights the importance of responsible tourism and, specifically, itemizes Millennials and GenZers who are the most likely to pay more for sustainable and efficient resource use.

"In the past years we've just seen the consumer demand grow particularly for sustainable travel options, there's a much more discerning travel base of people looking for alternatives from mass-tourism options," said Samantha Hogenson, the managing director of the CRT.

"And this is really becoming a point of competitiveness for destinations. They need to offer something different, something authentic, something pristine that a visitor couldn't get from going somewhere else."

Hogenson said that travellers, for example, could choose to go to Whistler instead of Washington state if Whistler were doing a better job of branding and differentiating itself — and sustainability is key: People expect sustainability the same way they expect free WiFi and online check-in.

"These really do go hand-in-hand: the environment, the economic and the social component," said Hogenson. "In order for destinations to be sustainable they really need all three, so we are seeing lots of linkages between the different types of tourism."

For Whistler Blackcomb (WB) — as with other ski resorts — the challenge is ongoing. Since 2000, WB has reduced waste by more than 60 per cent, and between 2008 and 2009, waste was reduced by 42 per cent in restaurants through the use of large-scale composting.

"The real elephant in the room is travelling to the eco-tourism spots," said Arthur De Jong, Whistler Blackcomb's mountain planning and resource manager. "Stepping forward now we need to find partnerships in transportation where we can encourage a smaller footprint. We're at about a 70-per-cent reduction of our waste," said De Jong.

"Our benchmark, where we were in 2000, we were sending 1,250 tons to the landfill. Now we're at about 360 tons." He added that the ideal number should be about 100 tons.

At the Whistler Conference Centre a rigorous program has helped the operation achieve a top level for sustainable standards.

"We have to achieve a 90-per-cent (waste diversion)," said Barbara Mares, Whistler Conference Centre services manager.

"Only 10 per cent of what we produce in this building goes to the landfill. We track our waste and we have been doing this since about 2010."

But even the best of intentions have to be reworked, depending on the need. For example, at the conference centre, you won't find recycling bins.

"We found that too many people wouldn't read the signs — they'd just throw stuff wherever. So now you can put your containers down and we do all our recycling at the back of the house," said Mares. At the conference centre as well, users are asked how they'd like to tailor their needs.

"We don't serve bottled water — we have water available. If a client wants bottled water, we will provide it but they have to ask for it," said Mares, adding: "We don't have straws in our cocktail drinks, plastic can't be recycled so that's something that's new and it's been very well received."

The conference centre also has an app for users, which reduces the need for pages of documents to be printed for each conference attendee.

"There's more we can do and we keep looking for new opportunities," said Karen Goodwin, vice-president, marketing and sales development for Tourism Whistler.

"Yes, our customer has to travel to get here, but if we can at least minimize their footprint when they're here, more people start to value that."

For Hogenson, her organization tracks how companies and resorts find the way to make sustainability work at a price point that travellers can afford.

"There's this misconception that sustainable travel either has to be roughing it, camping in tents or hostels, or super luxury," said Hogenson. "And that's not true. Sustainability is found at all different price points."

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