Doing It Better: Big Bay, Michigan

[Above: Fall colors along a Big Bay road. All photos courtesy of CREST.]

? Destination Stewardship Report – Vol. 2, No. 4 – Spring 2022 ?

How does a low-population, outdoorsy locale go about convening a destination stewardship council after the extractive industries it once depended on have wound down? CREST’s Kelsey Frenkiel relates how remote Big Bay, Michigan, USA created their own council from scratch. Apparently, a good consultant can help. This is the ninth in the Destination Stewardship Center’s “Doing It Better” series on collaborative destination management in the spirit of GSTC’s Destination Criterion A1.

The Outdoors Unplugged: Building a Destination Stewardship Council on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Sven Gonstead came to Big Bay, Michigan, the way most people do: via County Road 550, the 30-mile expanse that links the town, as if by a thread, to the city of Marquette, Michigan. A driver can do a lot in 30 minutes. He can count the shades of gold and auburn that rise as if ablaze in the distance; he can tweak his mind’s radio dial until the static fades and clarity seeps in; he will almost certainly lose GPS signal by about mile marker 20.

For some, the distance is a deterrent. For locals, being at the precipice of one of America’s longest dead-end roads makes their town special. Says Sven, “On that drive was when I decided I was moving to Big Bay.”

Sven is the Chairman of the Big Bay Stewardship Council (BBSC), a non-profit that supports efforts to make Big Bay – a small town located in Powell Township – a wonderful place to live and visit. Sven and other community members, with the help of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), built the organization largely from scratch, with many lessons learned along the way.

About the Place

The name Big Bay seems to make an amusing comment on size, with only 800 residents scattered throughout the dense, partial old-growth forest. But what it does not have in population, it makes up for in personality, both culturally and in the natural landscape, with towering trees, booming waterfalls, and abundant wildlife. Its “biggest” asset by far is its location next to 31,000 square miles of Lake Superior; the town counters with almost 2,000 grand, watery acres of its own, interior Lake Independence. Big Bay, and the whole Upper Peninsula for that matter, does not show up on the hand that Michigan residents will raise to depict the shape of the state. The U.P. is a finger that points perpendicular to “downstate” (how UPers – “Yoopers” – refer to the rest of Michigan), and the landmass is actually connected to Wisconsin and nudges into Canada.

Some other things Big Bay has to its name: an infamous killing depicted in the black-and-white film Anatomy of a Murder, with two historic locations featured in the story still operating, the Thunder Bay Inn and the Lumberjack Tavern. It was an early vacation getaway for Henry Ford, who owned 313,000 acres of timberland and a sawmill that still looks out over Lake Independence. The town’s bar-goers are also the inspiration for the Big Bay Shuffle, a song and dance coined by actor and musician Jeff Daniels.

Snowmobiles park at the historic Thunder Bay Inn, seen in the film Anatomy of a Murder.

Residents can be impressively hardy and capable – entrepreneurs, artists looking for a backcountry muse, and Do It Yourself-ers, some of whom built their own homes or parts of them (sometimes with the intention of going off-grid). They also have a strong sense of community and family, Big Bay being the place where they can spend time with loved ones and truly get away from it all. “Camps,” or rustic dwellings, often without Wi-fi or other amenities, are used as second homes where people can recharge and reconnect with each other

About the Council

The Big Bay Stewardship Council is working hard to protect this unique sense of place, encouraging developments that are good for their micro-economy while also retaining the strength of their cultural and natural environment. This involved, in partnership with CREST, efforts to shepherd more responsible forms of travel. Tourism is already occurring in large numbers. Visitors share Big Bay’s trail systems, stay in short-term rentals or the hotels and motels, use boats and kayaks on the lakes, frequent local campgrounds, and take part in seemingly all types of year-round recreational activities, both motorized and non-motorized.

The BBSC focuses its work around six major goals:

  • Enhance Sense of Place
  • Expand Outreach & Partnerships
  • Support Infrastructure & Asset Enhancement
  • Provide Entrepreneurial Support
  • Support Authentic Experiences & Events
  • Measure What Matters

Organizational Development

Each year, the BBSC conducts planning sessions to determine what activities will be accomplished that year to achieve these goals. They currently have three committees and hope to establish more as they gain capacity: the Steering Committee for overall governance, the Marketing Committee to maintain their partnership with the destination marketing organization Travel Marquette in telling Big Bay’s story, and the Placemaking Committee to conduct on-the-ground projects. The BBSC recently achieved non-profit status through the IRS, which means they can accept tax-deductible donations and apply for grants more easily.

To support this project in the early stages and determine that a destination stewardship council was needed, CREST conducted a scoping study to understand the region’s opportunities and challenges and collected baseline data about the impact visitors were having on the economy, the environment, and resident quality of life. They also helped to develop a marketing brand, Discover Big Bay, with a logo and associated tagline, “the outdoors unplugged.” The Lundin Foundation and Eagle Mine also partnered on the project as part of their work to strengthen communities where they operate.

The initiative has already ticked the first box for sustainable management of tourism destinations, according to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Destination Criterion A1: having “an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, with involvement by the private sector, public sector and civil society.” This type of cross-sector collaboration has been elusive for even the most developed tourism destinations. Sven explains how they got there:


You’re not originally from Big Bay. What prompted you to move there, and what is so special about it? 

Long story short, I came to participate in the first Noquemanon Ski Marathon in January of 1998. It was the first time I had spent any amount of time in Marquette County, and I found love. It was incredible. The day after the ski race, I drove County Road 550 from Marquette to Big Bay, and on that drive was when I decided I was moving to Big Bay. It had all the elements I was drawn to on the dead-end road. It was the people that were looking for an alternative to the normal existence in this country, I guess. People that are looking for something a little different… that are looking for more resonance with nature and the water. And of course, I love skiing in the winter. I moved in August 1998.

What is it about Big Bay that keeps people there? 

A big part of it is the people. It draws folks that are independent and strong. That think of the world in a different way. And we’re obviously all drawn to the physical beauty. With Big Bay it doesn’t jump out at you right away when you pull in. You will see these places that are amazing after you arrive – Alder Falls, Black Rocks, Yellow Dog Plains, and the Yellow Dog River…. Both [my wife] Marcia and I have so many places we want to visit that we haven’t yet. A lot of hidden morsels.

Sunset highlights one of Big Bay’s many lakes.

What are some of the challenges the region faces economically, environmentally, or with tourism or quality of life? 

That’s the ironic thing. A lot of the things that draw folks to Big Bay, they preclude economic development in the usual context. We’re at a dead-end road, it doesn’t really make sense for any manufacturing. It can also be hard to find healthy food in our community. So those things that draw people to Big Bay are the things that can make it difficult to live here. A micro-economy that is successful is a difficult dance. CREST was important in helping us determine that sustainable tourism could help us diversify our micro-economy.

Big Bay was a community that was developed through using natural resources like logging, mining… And some manufacturing thrown in there too. The Ford Mill, the Brunswick Mill. Our roots are in harvesting lumber. There’s a lot of environmental issues that have arisen through the years, and today there are significant threats to our natural and cultural resources. The dichotomy of development in the context of our natural environment is interesting. There’s a prospective spaceport that could be [here] in Powell Township, and of course there are issues environmentally with that. It feels like there is always pressure to keep developing. We have to figure out how to have a micro-economy that’s not going to threaten our way of life. It’s a real challenge to re-tool a little bit and look to the future in different ways.

How Big Bay Built Their Council

How did the Big Bay Stewardship Council get started? 

Things got started when a few community members got together and started talking about what this community can do differently that can carry us into the future. As stated earlier Big Bay has been dependent on boom-and-bust industries, like mining. Thankfully, the Lundin Foundation and Eagle Mine recognize that their presence has the potential to initiate that cycle again. Fortunately, they’ve been great partners to help us figure out a way that we can buffer this boom-and-bust cycle that  has occurred during the last 100 years. Working with CREST, we completed a scoping study and got some baseline data [such as number of people employed by tourism, trail user counts, and funding raised by existing events] to build off of.

What are some examples of projects that address the above challenges?

An issue is that we didn’t have a conduit for the community to communicate. That was one of the biggest challenges. Folks are doing their own thing, saying, “wouldn’t it be great to do this or do that”. Without a conduit, it was tough to have an organized effort to a) understand what the community wants as a whole and b) determine what it will take to accomplish those goals and c) follow through and finish them out. It’s pretty neat we have the structure [through the Big Bay Stewardship Council] now that we can look to. The Big Bay Fall Fest is a great example. It’s a representation of what the BBSC is all about: bringing in everybody from the community, the artists, the gunsmiths, farmers, non-profits, food vendors, and the people of all ages. It’s about just being together, initiating the conversation, and understanding that we’re in this together.

Tell us about the people of the BBSC. Who do you have on the Council and why? 

It’s such a wonderful and diverse group. I’m excited for the future in that regard. The BBSC at its best is intended to be as diverse as possible. We’re doing a good job of that. We have a couple of nonprofits with the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, Bay Cliff Health Camp. Then we have for-profit businesses like the Thunder Bay Inn. And local government… It’s incredible to have something new for this community, where we can have a conversation about what’s a sustainable direction that preserves the character of Big Bay.


What have been some of your greatest successes so far? 

This diverse group that’s well-represented. We’re able to really communicate in a way that’s productive.

Another success, with CREST’s assistance, is the scoping study and the baseline data collection that we were able to do. In my opinion, [data collection] is one of the most important things that the BBSC is doing. By keeping tabs on what’s going on, we have a shield against any potential overtourism issues that pop up, to make the right decisions going into the future. We’re armored with this knowledge. It’s becoming more obvious to me how important it is as we progress. I don’t know any neighboring community our size that has the ability to do that right now. To collect resident input, and use that data to inform our activity planning.

And the Fall Fest. It was like a big old barbecue… It was so great to see everyone hanging out. To be able to support other businesses and people that are starting little projects or hobby businesses, to have a platform for them to try it out, even if it’s just a booth at our Fall Fest.

Lessons Learned

What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in the 1.5 years that the BBSC has been operating?

First, the importance of data collection. It’s absolutely critical.

Second, that we should always be thinking about our capacity and be reasonable [with our activity planning]. We have to always keep in mind what’s achievable. The biggest issue is that making a living in Big Bay… that’s a full-time job in itself. A lot of people have skill sets to help with what is needed to run an organization like this, but a lot of those people are retired. People come here to relax, to get away from it all, to fish and stuff. There’s a limited amount of folks that are willing to help and that can help. It makes it really difficult. But there’s a lot of untapped talent and potential in our community. As we grow and people understand the value [of the BBSC], we’ll see an uptick in membership and volunteer help. We’re thinking about launching a membership model, but we need to do preliminary projects to get people to understand the value of our work first. If they understand that, they’ll jump in.

Bar-goers hang out at the historic Lumberjack Tavern.

Being such a diverse group, a community that communicates together is going to see greater results. Other communities did not do as good a job communicating early on and they got overwhelmed [with tourism]. And that is a big lesson for us. With Marquette evolving as a tourism destination and the rate it’s growing, it’s very possible something could happen in Big Bay, and we could get rolled over beyond our capacity. It’s good to have data and communication so we can keep tabs on that and react as needed.

What are you most excited about tackling in the future? 

First, working to expand the membership and the volunteer core, and watching the organization grow. It will be a slow but steady process.

I’m also really excited to actually tackle a larger project [like collaborative trail building or installation of streetlights] that we couldn’t begin to consider before the BBSC existed. We didn’t have the structure to even think about the bigger picture and tackle some things that people talked about that would improve our community.

I also think we can support the artists and musicians in our community more. We have many artists here, but there’s not a framework for them in the community. They’re living here but pursuing their work remotely. We hope to find ways to support them, maybe do an artists-in-residence project or gallery to create an environment that’s appealing for artists to live here.

I’m excited to see the Fall Fest grow and evolve.

Finally, I hope we will be able to assist Powell Township with large projects such as improving curb appeal, a community center, and building a Historical Trail. This will be a great opportunity to bring the community together in a way that embraces its past, helps its future, and provides  practical improvements for residents and visitors alike.

You can support the Big Bay Stewardship Council by making a donation and following along with their work via their website, 

Doing It Better: Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

[Above, the Snaefell shield volcano rises above a beach. Its capping glacier, Snaefellsjokull, is the centerpiece of its namesake national park at the far western end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

On a long, skinny Icelandic peninsula, five small municipalities have teamed up to create a modest destination stewardship council and supporting network. Tiffany Chan, with Jonathan Tourtellot, explores the Snæfellsnes model of sustainable collaboration – a work in progress that has already earned a platinum sustainability rating.

A Council-and-Network Approach to Destination Stewardship

Iceland’s narrow Snæfellsnes peninsula pokes out 90km westward into the far North Atlantic from a point partway between Reykjavík and Vestfirðir (the Western Fjords). Its wild and diverse landscapes offer a blend of culture, nature, and history – waterfalls and lava fields, black and white sand beaches, an archeological site, a glacier-capped strato-volcano in Snaefellsjokull National Park, and rich cultural heritage woven into Icelandic folklore and history. The peninsula is a two-hour drive north of Reykjavík, putting it within day-trip range of tourists based in Iceland’s capital city.

Lots of tourists.

Iceland, “Land of Fire and Ice,” draws visitors from around the globe to observe the country’s gleaming glaciers, active volcanoes, erupting geysers, and cascading waterfalls. They come to hike in Icelandic parks and admire the dance of the Northern Lights. However, mass tourism did not reach this island nation until the last decade. According to the Icelandic Tourist Board, Iceland received just under half a million foreign visitors in 2010 – still larger than the country’s population of about 330,000. Thereafter, growth of foreign overnight visitors increased annually, peaking at a high of 2.3 million in 2018 and around 2 million in 2019, right before the global pandemic – almost seven times the number of inhabitants. Iceland’s overtourism can contribute to ecological damage of the wild landscapes that visitors hope to see. Further, coachloads of tourists are not conducive to the wilderness experience itself.

The dramatic peak of Kirkjufell rises above the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, a location on the northern side of the peninsula made popular by the influence of Instagram. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

To disperse the masses, Iceland encourages visitors to explore more of the country, to go beyond Reykjavik and nearby day trips. Traveling slower and staying longer in each region is the responsibility of the traveller, but creating incentives to do so, and do so sustainably, fall to the destination itself. Snæfellsnes (“snow mountain peninsula”) has been at the forefront of sustainable destination development in Iceland. Certified by EarthCheck under Global Sustainable Tourism Council criteria, this regional standout employs a collaborative approach to sustainable tourism and destination stewardship.

Sustainability is Rooted in Nature

A significant portion of the Snæfellsnes population still lives on small farms. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

Unsurprisingly, the rapid growth in number of visitors through 2019 has affected Snæfellsnes. However, environmental protection and social responsibility are deeply rooted in this region of Iceland. Fishing is a very rich part of their cultural heritage. Residents relied on the fishing industry until tourism took over a couple of decades ago. The five Snæfellsnes municipalities, each different in size, form a small and connected community of less than 4000 residents. While most residents live in the towns, some 200-300 continue to live on farms, including one of the municipal mayors.

Overall, Snæfellsnes has taken a collaborative approach to various areas of sustainable development, including creation of Snæfellsnes Regional Park. The regional park was founded in 2014 by the five municipalities, nongovernment organizations, and other stakeholders to channel cooperation and share the area’s unique attractions with visitors and residents alike.

Additionally, for Snæfellsnes, destination certification was a step towards meeting sustainability goals. Snæfellsnes was the first European destination to receive an EarthCheck certification, in 2008. The certification program has been an effective project, keeping the environment, society and economy top of mind. According to the 10-year review on Snæfellsnes as an EarthCheck Destination, waste in landfills has been reduced by almost half, greenhouse gas emissions and energy performance are much improved, and the development of environmental programs and social initiatives have increased. Snæfellsnes Peninsula is now a certified platinum destination under the EarthCheck system.

Collaborative Governance

Collaboration in Snæfellsnes is based on an informal network of overlapping organizations.
• Byggðasamlag Snæfellinga is the destination stewardship council, made up of mayors from each of the five municipalities –- Snaefellsbaer, Helgafellssveit, Grundarfjörður, Stykkishólmur, and Eyjaog Miklaholtshreppur.
• Natturustofa Vesturands (the West Iceland Nature Research Center) manages Umhverfisvottun Snæfellsness (the Snæfellsnes Sustainability Program).
• The Snæfellsnes Regional Park, West Iceland Marketing, tourism unions, and the private sector are all involved in sustainable development as well.

Within this web of stakeholders, two particular individuals drive the sustainability effort in Snæfellsnes. Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir, at the West Iceland Nature Research Center, is the Sustainability Program Manager. She coordinates sustainability programs and projects, including the EarthCheck Certification. Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir, the Regional Park Manager, is equally involved in spearheading sustainability initiatives, as well as regional planning.

The Snæfellsnes EarthCheck Green Team celebrates 13 consecutive years of certification. [Photo courtesy of Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir]

Although several tourism councils and stakeholders make up this informal network, they all share common goals when it comes to the future of Snæfellsnes. To address issues in the region, meetings are called, often in neighboring farms. The community comes together, and the discussions begin. As Ragnhildur puts it, “the beauty of our work is cooperation. ‘Þetta reddast’ is a common slogan in Iceland, meaning ‘it will work out.’” The community is committed and invested in the sustainable development of Snæfellsnes. Ragnhildur continues: “Those who have moved to Snæfellsnes and are involved with tourism have never seen such strong tourism collaboration in a rural area. This is especially true of those who come from other rural areas. They are impressed with the work that we’ve done.”

Sustainable Management as a Community

Oftentimes, political changes alter the course of sustainability progress. In Snæfellsnes, an election is held every four years. If not re-elected, the mayors all change at the same time, which can delay certain initiatives, but it does not impact the destination management plan in a significant way. However, multi-stakeholder involvement doesn’t come without challenges. Every municipality is different in size, funding and resources, with the smallest being 66 people with a tiny budget. There has been formal and informal dialogue about the potential of combining two municipalities, possibly even all five.

Regardless, sustainable management involves broad cooperation of parties and public participation. Snæfellsnes Regional Park (not to be confused with Snaefellsjokull National Park), is a joint effort by the municipalities and tourism stakeholders. The governing bodies include a Founder’s Council, under which a Steering Group and Working Group work in collaboration. Additional consultants assisted with landscape assessment, regional plan development, and project management.

Sharing a common vision allows for cooperation through environmental conservation and promotion.

Multiple parties are also involved in regional planning. Over 200 people from various groups and stakeholders come together, including the five municipalities, a local planning committee, and a local steering committee. The five municipalities appoint a regional planning committee to overlook zoning under their supervision. Every municipality has an individual plan, which must also align with the regional plan.

The snowy destination of Bjarnafoss receives an environmental award in 2018. [Photo by Heimir Berg]

The municipalities are financially responsible for the social services and schools within their own community but collectively take care of the Visitor Center, the history museum, and the sustainability program, including the EarthCheck Certification.

The regional park is funded by municipalities, the tourism union, the workers union, and farmers associations. Through the regional park, Ragnhildur Sigurðardóttir is responsible for training staff and running the Visitors Center. Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir oversees the EarthCheck Standard and sustainability program, holding courses at the center. The Visitor Center is located at Breiðablik, the entrance to Snæfellsnes. It is open daily and provides tourists with trip planning information to help guide their visit within the region.

Most residents share an understanding that protecting natural resources benefits the entire community, but there are limits. “It would be great to have more happening in the Visitors Center, but once the work has been done, reality hits. You have to hire employees, pay for electricity costs and all that comes with running the center,” says Ragnhildur. “When the five municipalities come together, they also have to consider money that is needed elsewhere, such as building a kindergarten.”

Projects & Activities

The Regional Park is working on two important projects:
• Taking the initial steps for applying to become a UNESCO Biosphere destination.
• Destination branding and marketing under the “Choose or Stay” policy.

Choose or Stay is a national strategy for converting daytrippers from Reykjavík into overnight visitors. In Icelandic it rhymes: veldu eða vertu. It encourages visitors to travel slower, either by choosing just one site for a day trip or staying longer to see more. The approach helps create a circular travel route around Snæfellsnes while avoiding congestion due to large tour buses.

To further disperse tourists, a categorical system was created whereby a list of 28 popular locations is labelled A, B, C or D, based on various risk factors for the environment and the visitors. Visitor-ready locations with appropriate infrastructure in place are labelled A, while B is still in progress, C is a wishlist of places that they want to market to be visitor-ready or at least heading in that direction. D is for sensitive places where they don’t want visitors. This system helps manage the number of people visiting each location. Overall, it is going well and helps manage crowding by spreading people out.

Búðakirkja, the Black Church of Búðir, has become a popular destination for photographers, who travel to the rural southern side of the peninsula to capture its beauty. [Photo courtesy of Visit Iceland]

Measuring Progress in Rural Iceland

When asked how Snæfellsnes measures success, Ragnhildur responded: “We discuss results at our annual meeting. We ask everyone at the meeting for input. We work together and see Snæfellsnes as a whole, which is better when it comes to funding and finishing projects. At the same time, Guðrún and I often reject projects because we have to be selective.”

Additionally, there are plenty of evaluations. Following an action plan of what Guðrún and each municipality is doing, there is an evaluation at the end of the year to discuss how each project will proceed, with environmental and social factors in mind. The EarthCheck certification also requires an annual third-party performance audit. The benefit of being one of two areas in Iceland with certification (the other being the municipalities in the Westfjords), is the joint effort within the entire community. Many decisions in Snæfellsnes are directly linked to being certified, ensuring continued progress toward sustainability.


As a council made up of mayors, the Byggðasamlag Snæfellinga seems to serve technically as the core of the informal network of overlapping organizations that address destination stewardship in Snæfellsnes. Threats of overtourism are weighed against a desire to grow.

“Twenty years ago, there was little tourism. Residents lived off the fishing industry, along with farming and agriculture. We are traditional and old fashioned, but we have deep roots. We want new inhabitants and companies to come to Snæfellsnes. This is the luxury of having a low population of residents,” says Ragnhildur.

The Iceland Regional Affairs Conference held in Snæfellsnes in 2018. [Photo courtesy of Guðrún Magnea Magnúsdóttir]

Tourism started to increase about 20 years ago, but more rapidly within the last 10. Sustainability seems to have proceeded as well, if haltingly. Snæfellsnes tourism enterprises that are certified have seen results, such as savings from energy efficiency and other best practices. However, getting business to become certified is a challenge, according to the two managers. Businesses are small and mostly rely on busy summer periods. It is costly and takes time and resources to get certified and audited. Since there is little competition, it is not very compelling.

Economic, cultural, and ecological factors all come into play. “With elections bringing in a new board of municipalities, it is kind of political,” says Guðrún. She lists the major challenges:

  1. Politics
  2. Budgets to finance the program
  3. Mobilizing the community
  4. Reaching out to inform visitors – Mainly because of budget limitations, the villages don’t have the resources, the marketing, the informational signs, nor anyone for managing tourism.

Some say it would make sense for the regional park to manage all of it, but that will take more resources and collaboration. Meanwhile the certification consultant, EarthCheck, provides some measure of continuity, if tipped strongly toward environment over social and cultural sustainability. Snæfellsnes’s current governance arrangement may seem somewhat messy, but the destination is of manageable size, there is broad cultural support for sustainability, and the outlook encouraging. Perhaps that Icelandic aphorism does apply: “It will work out.”

Doing It Better: The Pennsylvania Wilds

[Above: Sinnemahoning State Park, Pennsylvania Wilds. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

It’s a destination described by one expert as having “one of the greatest, rural, natural resource-based economic development programs in the U.S.” The remarkable Pennsylvania Wilds joins our ongoing “Doing It Better” series on places with a holistic approach to destination management in the spirit of GSTC Destination Criterion A1. Over the past three years two DSC volunteers, Ellen Rugh and Jacqueline Harper, have been collecting and documenting information on the region’s remarkable PA Wilds Center. Here is their report, as featured in the Summer 2021 issue of the Destination Stewardship Report.

Holistic Destination Regeneration, from Conservation to Design

This forested multicounty region in northwest Pennsylvania, once known as the “timber capital” of America, was depleted of its trees and wildlife by the beginning of the 20th century. Poor forest management and increased demand for lumber led to raging wildfires and floods. The elk population went extinct; the whitetail deer nearly so. With the timberlands denuded and an oil boom played out, the region went into decline. The government ended up buying the land to create state and national forests. Now, after 100 years of conservation, the elk are back, and the rebranded “Pennsylvania Wilds” has been restored, hosting a rich, thriving forest that educates others on the importance of responsible forestry.

One opportunity for regenerating the depressed region was tourism, focused on the area’s rejuvenated landscape, rich human history, and living artisanry. Facilitating that vision has been the Pennsylvania (PA) Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship (often shortened to the PA Wilds Center).

Breathtaking fall foliage behind an old PA Wilds barn. [Photo by Cameron Venti]

We believe the PA Wilds Center (and its associated Planning Team) constitute a good example of a destination stewardship council because to this organization, tourism and sustainability go hand in hand. This is not just stated in the organization’s mission statement or values, but also demonstrated by its actions. The organization goes beyond the normal scope of work of a Destination Management Organization (i.e., focusing on accommodations and operations) to integrate tourism as an important element of rural economic development. TED speaker Ed McMahon, a national expert on sustainable community development, calls the PA Wilds Center’s effort “one of the greatest, rural, natural resource-based economic development programs in the US.”

The PA Wilds initiative was launched in 2003 by then Governor Ed Rendell to coordinate the efforts of various state agencies and local stakeholders in an initiative to marry conservation and economic development.  Ten years later, the non-profit PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc. was founded with support from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and PA DCED. The PA Wilds Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit with the mission to “integrate conservation and economic development in a way that strengthens and inspires communities in the Pennsylvania Wilds.” Currently, the PA Wilds acts as the coordinating entity among local partners to promote a sustainable form of nature-based and heritage tourism, seeking to “celebrate and nurture our natural wonders by connecting people with nature.” According to their website, tourism in this region pre-pandemic has accounted for about 11% of its economy with a visitor spend of approximately $1.8 billion annually.

The largest wild elk herd in the Northeast lives in the Pennsylvania Wilds. [Photo by Matthew Schwartz]

This non-profit shows that integrating conservation and economic development goes beyond a mission statement; it is incorporated into every aspect of their operations. The PA Wilds Center’s Brand Principles include ‘stewardship of the land’ as a guiding value and include many references to the importance of cultivating a healthy relationship between people and the environment. The organization believes that all its staff share responsibilities that impact sustainable tourism, whether in the realm of marketing, conservation and stewardship activities and partnerships, education, grants and funding, and promotion of local businesses and products, among others.

Geographic Context

The Pennsylvania Wilds jurisdiction comprises 12 ½ counties in North-Central Pennsylvania and is one of the 11 official tourism regions designated by the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED) Tourism Office. Although the PA Wilds cover over a quarter of the state, it is home to a mere four percent of the state population. It covers 2.4 million acres of public land (more than Yellowstone National Park), most of which is working forest. The Pennsylvania Wilds boasts two National Wild & Scenic Rivers, 9 state and national forests, 29 state parks, the largest wild elk herd in the Northeast, and some of the darkest skies in the country. It has a rich heritage in oil and lumber. Now however, with the coordination of the PA Wilds Center, many local partners are involved in the growing push towards nature-based and heritage tourism to create jobs, diversify local economies, inspire stewardship, and improve quality of life.

Source: PA Wilds Center website @


The PA Wilds Center uses strategic, coordinated regional planning to protect the region’s scenic quality, natural resource preservation, and individual community character.  Several activities support this approach.

Bicyclists head south for a ride on the Pine Creek Rail Trail. [Photo courtesy of PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship Inc.]

• Marketing – The PA Wilds Center receives dedicated funding to market the region’s distinct character to visitors, as well as to promote and enhance community character and pride for residents. Launched in 2018, the region’s first paid advertising campaign in nearly a decade promoted the Pennsylvania Wilds lifestyle – its beautiful landscapes and journeys, experiences, destinations, and distinctive place-based businesses. The organization provides information for tourists to discover what they can see, do, and experience when they travel to this wild landscape. There’s also a dedicated blog that features guest editorials showcasing the Pennsylvania Wilds lifestyle. For example, blog posts from 2020 highlight suggestions on spending time immersed in nature, where to explore historic ruins, and even visit the mysterious Ice Mine at Coudersport. The PA Wilds Center’s sustainably built gift shop,  the PA Wilds Conservation Shop, features locally made products. Profits from this brick-and-mortar shop are invested back into the Center’s mission.

A charming Pennsylvania Wilds barn. [Photo by Ellen Rugh]

• Visual Appeal – The PA Wilds Center wants new development to protect the region’s sense of place and community distinctiveness – whether that growth is due to tourism or other industries. With this in mind, the organization created the landmark PA Wilds Design Assistance Program, publishing in 2017 the extensive PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship.

                                    “Build to build to fit the landscape”
—PA Wilds Center CEO Ta Enos

This free, downloadable guide promotes protection of scenic views, energy-efficient building designs,  architectural styles, and other stewardship actions, highlighting how local communities can choose to protect or enhance their unique character as they grow.

• Entrepreneurial Assistance – The PA Wilds Center also offers assistance to businesses in the region through grants and free consulting services. The Center is the point of contact for two in-house business development programs, the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania (WCO) and the PA Wilds Licensing Program. They act as a consultant to provide aspiring local businesses with connections to lenders, technical assistance providers, marketers, and other resources. The Center also offers mini grants to local organizations, providing financial aid for projects that tie into regional strategies, such as signage, interpretation, façade upgrades, etc. More information about past and present grants can be found on their website.

• Events – The PA Wilds Center does not play a direct role in routinely creating and hosting catalyst events, with the exception of a Buyer’s Market, a tradeshow for regional makers and businesses to promote their products to retailers in the Pennsylvania Wilds and the PA Wilds Conservation Shop. Instead, the Center has created partnerships with certain event organizers and will provide a platform for promoting events.

Community Engagement

PA Wilds Center works with local, state, and national partners from the public and private sectors. These include entrepreneurs, small businesses, corporate leaders, land and waterway managers, conservation organizations, non-profits, tourism and heritage, and economic developers. For example, the PA Wilds Center created an entrepreneurial ecosystem and business development program, Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania (WCO). The WCO includes a membership network of “creative makers” and place-based businesses. This arrangement contributes to the value-chain of local products and services tied to the PA Wilds lifestyle brand. Additionally, the PA Wilds Center has a process in place for collecting comments from people and partners in the PA Wilds that will help inform the work. By listening to community members’ feedback, the Center can work out any kinks in future programs and plans.

Managing Sustainability and Stewardship

Because of its unique natural resources, the Pennsylvania Wilds region is designated one of seven Conservation Landscapes in Pennsylvania. The PA Wilds Center works closely with the PA DCNR to coordinate activities by the many local partners involved in the conservation landscape work. This aims to grow nature and heritage tourism in the region while creating jobs, diversifying local economies, inspiring stewardship, and improving quality of life.

Building relationships with nearby farming communities enables businesses to source local food products.  [Photo by Cameron Venti]

One example is the PA Wilds Conservation Shop’s online and physical gift stores. The Conservation Shop focuses on selling locally made and value-added products. By sourcing local products, it helps reduce the products’ transport-related carbon footprint and benefits the rural economy, minimizing  economic leakage and keeping profits local. Products in the Conservation Shop are sourced from the WCO’s network of more than 100 local producers, artists, and craftspeople from across the PA Wilds. To boost stewardship, shoppers can add a donation during check-out. The proceeds help the PA Parks and Forests Foundation fund projects in the local state parks and forests.

The PA Wilds Center goes beyond traditional destination marketing by taking action to be sustainable, such as making their buildings energy efficient. West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund (WPPSEF) has been a major investor in the PA Wilds. WPPSEF has helped fund energy-efficient upgrades to have high-performance buildings across the region. This collaboration shows that sustainable energy investments can drive local economic development in rural communities. The PA Wilds Center offers resources such as a brochure for both visitors and residents on (1) how to build energy-efficient visitor centers and (2) how to travel smarter while reducing their environmental impact. The PA Wilds Center and WPPSEF raise awareness about the difference energy-efficient technologies can have on the environment and on an organization’s bottom line. Their financing and grant programs help many communities in the region tackle such projects.

Every year, the PA Wilds Center recognizes outstanding local Conservation/Stewardship efforts through the PA Wilds Champion Awards program, honoring individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and businesses that made significant contributions toward nature tourism alongside economic development and conservation goals. The awards include Outstanding Leader Award, Conservation Stewardship Award, Artisan of the Year Award, Inspiring Youth Award, and Event of the Year.

The Center has no formalized language for explicitly de-emphasizing mass tourism. The council does claim that by promoting the authentic character of the vast rural and forested region, the area naturally lends itself to more individualized tourism experiences.

There are two components of PA Wilds Center’s organizational structure. The first is the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship and the second is the PA Wilds Planning Team.

The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship is governed by a Board of Directors, which is made up of 11 members from various public and private organizations in the region. The organizations in the region that have a member on the Board of Directors include Straub Brewery, Warren County Planning, Tioga County Planning, and Williamsport-Lycoming County Chamber and Visitors Bureau. The final authority on decisions lies with the Board of Directors and the Executive Director. The Board of Directors works alongside the PA Wilds Planning Team. As of 2018, the PA Wilds did not have a leadership succession plan, however, they were in the process of creating one as the organization is committed to longevity and believes that their work is generational.

The unique architecture of the Warren Business District. [Photo courtesy of PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship Inc.]

Although it is still housed under the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, the Planning Team largely functions as its own entity. It encompasses a 13-county stakeholder group, giving local stakeholders a voice in the PA Wilds Center work. This group is made up of county planners and dozens of organizations from across the PA Wilds in addition to three executives: Chair, Vice Chair, and Treasurer/ Secretary. The Planning Team was formed in 2006 through an Intergovernmental Cooperative Agreement, largest of its kind in Pennsylvania. Under that agreement, the Planning Team shapes its own projects and has been the force behind the PA Wilds Champion Awards, the PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship, and the mini grant program. This team meets monthly to share information and to undertake activities that will capitalize on economic gains, without harming the region.

DIAGRAM: Source: PA Wilds Center @


Several core donors support the Center, including the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, PA Department of Community & Economic Development, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the region’s 12 county governments. Additionally, the PA Wilds Center’s work is sustained through program fees, philanthropic giving, government grants, and entrepreneurial activities related to the Pennsylvania Wilds brand. As of June 30, 2018, the PA Wilds Center received $697, 720 in grants; $41, 572 from corporate, foundation, and individual contributions; and $210, 1050104 in program income. Between 2017 and 2019, the PA Wilds Center received more revenue than they spent on expenses. This non-profit seems well-funded, and based on the recent financial statements, the organization demonstrates stable funding.

In May 2020, the PA Wilds Center released a white paper entitled, “Early Impacts of COVID-19 on the rural Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative”. While the paper discusses funding challenges from local conservation groups and DMOs with PA Wilds’ territory, how COVID-19 has directly impacted PA Wilds Center’s organizational funding was not yet specified.Ta Enos, Chief Executive Officer of the PA Wilds Center, encouraged small businesses within the PA Wilds to apply for the COVID-19 Relief Statewide Small Business Assistance Program. This program provided grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 to small businesses with 25 or fewer employees and that have an annual gross revenue of $1 million or less.

Things could have been worse. The pandemic actually resulted in a 22% increase in state park visitation, as tourist sought the relative safety of outdoor experiences. “We’re in a position for a strong recovery, because of the kind of destination that we are, because we are rural, we are outdoor based. Coming out of this crisis, people are kind of looking for those experiences,” Enos told local TV station WPSU. “The pandemic has not slowed that at all, the overall scope of what we’re trying to accomplish in the long term. If anything, it’s sped it up. I think it’s shone a new light onto it.”

Measures of Success

The PA Wilds Center uses metrics generated both in-house and by their partners to measure success. Some of the in-house indicators include the number of members in the WCO, multiple revenue streams, Conservation Shop sales, and employment statistics from the WCO. Additionally, other  data sources come from reports generated by the US forest service, state tourism office, and the PA DCNR.

Some highlights include:

  • Overnight visitor trips to the Wilds grew 57% from 2010-2015
  • From 2009-2016:
    • visitor spending in the region grew an average of 37%
    • tourism employment increased by 19%

Beyond these basic metrics, the PA Wilds Center has a guiding strategy known as BUDS:

  • BRING visitors to the region to boost local economies, attract investment, and improve quality of life;
  • UNIFY partners around the PA Wilds Work;
  • DELIVER programs and services to our businesses and communities; and
  • STEWARD our region’s public lands and natural assets, rural lifestyle, and unique community character, while sustaining our organization and vision for future generations.

Each of the four function areas has six to nine key performance indicators (KPIs) used to guide and track progress both short term (< 3 years) and long-term (10-30 years). A KPI under Unify, for instance, is to have 2,000 small businesses participating in the WCO annually within the next 10 years. A KPI under their Steward strategy is to raise $25,000 annually for conservation through their charity checkout campaign at the PA Wilds Conservation Shop. The KPIs are not set in stone and are reviewed annually to ensure they are still relevant, essential for post-pandemic planning. To learn more about PA Wilds Center’s KPIs, download their Strategic Plan.

The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park incorporates Design Guide principles of green technology and local artisan products into its building design. [Photo courtesy of PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship Inc.]


Coming from a once depleted forest – or perhaps because of it – this organization is remarkable in how strongly sustainability is incorporated into its business strategy, ranging from selling products made by local businesses to incorporating energy efficiency into building design to creating the Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship. PA Wilds Center not only talks the sustainability talk, it walks the sustainability walk: “Here – conservation is not just a buzzword. Stewardship of the natural environment is our way of life,” they say. Their business strategy strongly connected to sustainable development, and it’s working. Between 2009 and 2017, visitor spending in the Pennsylvania Wilds grew an average of 42.6% and tourism employment increased by 20%. This is a great example of how good destination stewardship can marry the idea of economic growth and sustainable development.

The PA Wilds Center is also proficient in its engagement with local businesses. It is rewarding to see a non-profit source all the products in its gift shops from local businesses, thereby keeping money in the rural economy, supporting local jobs and entrepreneurs, leaving a smaller energy footprint, strengthening community ties, and finally, giving tourists something unique to bring home and better remember their trip. Since the Conservation Shop opened in August 2016, the high demand for regionally made products has generated more than $1 million in sales. The PA Wilds Center demonstrates how buying local is a great way to support the community, complete with tourist support.

One concern regards the apparent lack of a succession plan. Even though the organization is fortunate to have full-time staff and stable funding, it is vital for it to have a plan to pass on the reins and ensure the continuation of its sustainability efforts. A succession plan allows for a smooth transition if any individual in a leadership role (including the Chief Executive Officer) must part ways with the organization. With no succession plan in place this wonderful example of a functioning destination stewardship may not be able to capitalize long-term on their tourism achievements.

It is often a challenge for environmental organizations (especially in rural areas) to be adequately funded. However, the PA Wilds Center has had a stable funding stream over recent years. One hopes this will help the organization continue to make great strides in the environmental conservation field despite the pandemic in 2020. If this region continues to bounces back quickly, it will show that more organizations should adopt a mission to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that strengthens and inspires both communities and their visitors.

We welcome your comments on the PA Wilds Center and its stewardship.


Spring 2021 Destination Stewardship Report Just Out

Longest Destination Stewardship Report Yet

On 14 April 2021 we were pleased to send out the Spring (2Q) edition of the Destination Stewardship Report, completing its first year of online publication as a joint project with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. You can subscribe for free hereStories in this issue:

  • The Nisga’a Offer an Indigenous Tourism Model – How to present an indigenous culture “written in the land” to tourists? Bert Mercer, economic development manager for Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government, describes the process of tying together a culturally sensitive tourism experience for visitors to the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia, Canada.
  • Saving Cultural Heritage: The Singapore Hawkers Case – Drives for sustainability may sometimes overlook the endangered arts and traditions that make a place and a culture come to life. The World Tourism Association for Culture & Heritage (WTACH) aims to rectify that. In Singapore, Chris Flynn, WTACH’s CEO, discusses a particularly delicious case – one recently recognized by UNESCO.
  • Doing It Better: Sedona, Arizona – Prompted by a restive citizenry and a responsive city council, the DMO for the city of Sedona, Arizona, USA, now acts in effect as a destination stewardship council. That’s unusual. For part of our ongoing project to profile places with effective, holistic management, Sarah-Jane Johnson takes a deep dive into Sedona’s story. This is the sixth in the Destination Stewardship Center’s profiles of exemplary places with collaborative destination management in the spirit of GSTC’s Destination Criterion A1.
  • Japan’s Journey Toward Sustainability –  It’s a tall order for a large country to change its national policy and commit to improving stewardship for hundreds of its tourism destinations, but Japan is taking tentative steps in that direction, spurred on by one young official and a lot of collaborators. GSTC’s Emi Kaiwa reports on how this tentative change of heart came about, what’s happened to date, and how far it has to go.
  • Once Overrun, Dubrovnik Plans for Sustainability – Dubrovnik, Croatia, a UNESCO World Heritage city, is known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic Sea’, its historic city center surrounded by original medieval stone walls – and until recently, thronged with cruise ship passengers. In 2017, that began to change.
  • Opinion: A Chance to Tame Cruise Tourism – Cruise critic Ross Klein argues that now is the time for port cities to gain control of cruise tourism crowds, explaining three ways to do that – and why it won’t be easy. But if not now, when?
  • Report: “Reset Tourism” Webinar Series – Destination Stewardship – Held on 25 March 2021, the first webinar of the Future of Tourism Coalition‘s four-part “Reset Tourism” series drew 500 registrants. These webinars are intended to help destinations emerge from the Covid crisis with new forms of governance and collaboration that will enable a more holistic and sustainable approach to tourism management and development.
  • Webinar Report: Measuring Destination Happiness – A massive webinar to mark last month’s “International Day of Happiness” yielded some serious pointers for destinations seeking a broader measure of successful tourism recovery than counting revenue and arrivals.“Covid has shown us we can’t be happy on an unhappy planet” was one message for destinations around the world, report DSC associates Marta Mills and Chi Lo – the point being that local contentment should be part of the tourism equation: “A good place to live is a good place to visit.”
  • New App to Assess Sustainability of Tourism Communities – Assessing the sustainability of destinations and acting on the findings can be a complex, expensive task. Dave Randle explains the workings of a new app that his Blue Community Consortium underwrote to assist with that process. Some university students gave the app’s first step, assessment, a revealing field test on seven Florida destinations. Here’s what the app does, and what the students found.

To read these stories plus information on announcements, upcoming events and webinars, and publications, go to the Spring (2Q) edition of the Destination Stewardship Report. And please comment!                       — Jonathan Tourtellot, Editor

Doing It Better: Sedona, Arizona

[Above: Sedona red rocks, reflected. Photo credits throughout: Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau]

Prompted by a restive citizenry and a responsive city council, the DMO for the city of Sedona, Arizona, USA, now acts in effect as a destination stewardship council. That’s unusual. For part of our ongoing project to profile places with effective, holistic management, Sarah-Jane Johnson takes a deep dive into Sedona’s story. This is the sixth in the Destination Stewardship Center’s profiles of exemplary places with collaborative destination management in the spirit of GSTC’s Destination Criterion A1.

In Arizona’s Popular Red Rock Country,  One CVB Put Community First and So Became Its Own Destination Stewardship Council

For decades the Arizona desert town of Sedona (population 10,000) has welcomed an annual average of 3 million tourists captivated by the landscape of red rock buttes, canyons, and pine forests. They can take advantage of distinctly Sedona offerings – an abundance of outdoor recreation such as iconic mountain biking and hiking, well-coordinated arts and culture including festivals, plus the famous Sedona “vortexes,” a staple for spiritual tourists.

Eventually and perhaps inevitably, red-rock fever took grip: Sedona became a victim of successful marketing promotions, reaching a high point of being “loved to death” in 2016 when droves of Instagram-snapping tourists responded to marketing campaigns spotlighting the centennial of the National Park Service, closely followed by another for the Grand Canyon’s 100th anniversary. Visitors clogged Sedona streets with traffic and packed local trailheads, much to the dismay of local residents. Leaders at Sedona Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Board (SCC&TB), started to question how much tourism much was too much, and what kind of action was needed.

Red Rock State Park, from Schnebly Hill. Photo by bboserup/

Context of Sustainability

The seeds for sustainability were actually planted 13 years before this watershed moment of overtourism, when Sedona teamed up with four regional DMO partners to form the Sedona Verde Valley Tourism Council, a collaborative effort to coordinate and promote the products and experiences of the entire Verde Valley. An anchor project for this regional partnership was creation of a National Geographic Geotourism Map Guide promoting regional culture, heritage, and ecological diversity, supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which was keen to create value around the Verde River and its watershed through awareness and education. Geotourism has been defined via National Geographic as “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” As a tactical approach, the values informing Geotourism MapGuide became the first introduction to sustainability before any strategy was conceived.

The crunch of 2016 prompted SCC&TB to embark on a Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) assessment. Sedona scored 33 out of 41, placing itself as a leading destination in sustainable tourism management, and only one of two destinations in the United States to undergo assessment (the other being Jackson Hole, Wyoming). So began the Sedona DMO’s transition from Destination Marketing Organization to Destination Management Oorganization.

After the GSTC assessment results, SCC&TB began in 2017 an 18-month-long journey toward defining a concept for tourism sustainability. Working in partnership with the City of Sedona and external consulting teams from the Arizona State University and Nichols Tourism Group, the Sedona DMO engaged community, business, and visitors in a discovery phase and drafting of a final Sustainable Tourism Plan, presented to the City Council for approval in spring 2019.

By pursuing a mission to become a leader in sustainability, SCC&TB has become the closest thing to a real stewardship council for the destination, although not for the entire valley. The process of developing a solid sustainability plan has made community the focus of the organization’s updated mission statement: “to serve Sedona by making it the best place to live, work, play, and visit.” This statement reflects the strong relationships created within the community and the corresponding realization that the tourism mission is broader than economic benefits.

Organizational Structure and Governance

Unlike some other stewardship councils being reviewed thus far by the Destination Stewardship Center, Sedona manages sustainability differently. As the Sedona DMO reoriented to focus on management instead of marketing, it has been working alongside the local government, relying on sustainability support teams, and engaging with a community that has become increasingly skeptical of tourism.

“A lot of DMO’s don’t want to get into visitor management. . . .
But in fragile destinations it’s the only way to be successful.”


“There are really just a handful of communities that are trying to do management rather than marketing. [Sedona] is not a typical visitor and convention bureau. This is really unusual for a CVB,” said Jennifer Wesselhoff, CEO of SCC&TB in 2020. “A lot of DMO’s don’t want to get into visitor management. It’s a debate. Some think it’s a slippery slope. But in fragile destinations it’s the only way to be successful.”

SCC&TB is a membership organization. It is guided and overseen by a volunteer board of directors composed of local Chamber members elected by the Chamber membership. They include local businesses, nonprofit organizations, government, and community organizations. The Board employs a President/CEO who implements the policies established by the Board, administers Chamber programs, and supervises the Chamber’s budget.

To oversee the Sustainable Tourism Plan’s implementation and strategy, a Sustainable Tourism Advisory Committee (STAC) helps direct the City Council and the SCC&TB Board, while evaluating the Plan’s progress on an ongoing basis.

Success-tracking metrics for every tactic in the Plan have been refined through the direction of the Sustainable Tourism Action Team (STAT), a body of 22 members representing tourism businesses, the city of Sedona, US Forest Service, and numerous nonprofit organizations including Red Rock Trail Fund, the Sedona Verde Sustainability Alliance, and Keep Sedona Beautiful. SCC&TB’s President/CEO and marketing director spearhead the organization of the STAT and the STAC meetings and report on the status of the work to City Council every quarter.

Setting the agenda is a joint process between the City Council and the Chamber. The January city council work session sets priorities, and SCC&TB then drafts its plan of priorities to be approved by its own board and presented back to the City Council, which approves funding for tourism management and promotion. While there is no dedicated sustainability manager, many different Chamber and City staff members will have sustainability tactics attached to their job descriptions. The marketing director has oversight and coordination of scheduling meetings and tracking metrics.

To make sure SCC&TB is not the only one taking the lead, each tactic has a lead person or organization. Every lead is on the STAC and provides a quarterly update. The City has a part time sustainability coordinator, who also leads the City’s climate action plan, currently under development.

Hiking the red rock country is a popular Sedona area activity.

Community Engagement

Integrating the Sedona community into the process for developing and implementing  the Sustainable Tourism Plan was – and continues to be – an unprecedented collaboration. Sedona Chamber describes how thousands of community members were involved over 18 months in planning, and several organizations continue to lead or support current tactics.

In the Plan’s development stage, the team conducted the following action steps for research surveying and feedback:

  • Interviewed hundreds of residents.
  • Analyzed hundreds of business-survey responses.
  • Conducted focus groups with area non-profit organizations.
  • Brought land management agencies together.
  • Talked with tourism industry companies operating tours, lodging facilities, and restaurants.
  • Included local arts and spirituality communities.
  • Collaborated with governments and industry ranging from Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the Forest Service to Arizona State Parks (APS.)
  • Provided status updates through regular communication tactics including blog posts, social media, radio spots, guest columns, and presentations. Public meetings were held to review findings and get more input.

Beyond the Plan’s development, the SCC&TB ensures continuing engagement with the community about sustainability and the Plan itself. The STAC advisory council is made up of residents and local business owners, who determine the overarching metrics of success for the entire plan.

The DMO’s communication with residents is frequent, including updates to the community on the Sustainable Tourism Plan via e-blasts and local media op-eds. “We talk about the STP all the time. We constantly remind the community of how the things we are doing align with the Plan,” said Wesselhoff.

Managing Sustainable Tourism

Sedona’s community-based sustainability plan has been divided into four strategic pillars that list objectives designed to implement sustainability:

  1. Environmental Objectives: Lead the tourism industry in implementing sustainability principles, positioning Sedona as a national and international leader in destination stewardship.
    1. Implement new waste prevention, reduction, and diversion strategies focused on visitors and their impacts in the Sedona region.
    2. Expand programs that encourage minimal water usage and protect water quality.
    3. Create new programs to help businesses and visitors moderate energy use and use alternative forms of energy.
    4. Launch initiatives that lessen impacts on lands (including noise, air, and light pollution), and stimulate efforts for long-term sustainability.
    5. Educate and engage businesses and visitors on sustainability initiatives, encouraging visitors to be sensitive guests during their stays.
  2. Resident Quality of Life Objectives: Protect and enhance the quality of life by mitigating negative impacts of tourism.
    1. Implement new infrastructure and multi-modal solutions to facilitate visitor traffic flows and enhance access to key destinations.
    2. Expand use of technology to help solve transportation challenges.
    3. Deepen engagement with Sedona residents, expanding their knowledge of tourism and efforts to manage it so as to achieve an effective balance.
    4. Develop new sustainability-focused experiences that resonate with both Sedona residents and visitors.
    5. Manage current and future accommodations in ways that increase long-term sustainability.
    6. Launch initiatives to maintain local quality of life by lessening undesirable tourism impacts on residents including noise, air, and light pollution.
  3. Quality of the Economy Objectives: Shape the Sedona economy in ways that balance its long-term sustainability and vibrancy.
    1. Monitor and adjust levels of economic activity for needy periods and moderate congestion by dispersing visitors.
    2. Expand interagency collaboration among diverse Sedona organizations.
    3. Monitor and adjust tourism marketing to achieve a balance between quality of life and a healthy economy.
    4. Pursue innovative approaches to employee housing and training.
  4. Visitor Experience Objectives: Continue to provide an excellent visitor experience that highlights Sedona’s sustainability values and keeps visitors coming back.
    1. Deepen understanding of existing experiences, how best to access them, and how to apply sustainable practices while visiting.
    2. Work to disperse visitors across the broader Verde Valley region to help moderate congestion at key Sedona experiences.


Some specific destination programs which have been developed prior to or grown since the implementation of the Sustainable Tourism Plan include:

  • Walk Sedona which encourages people to get out of their cars in an effort to decrease road congestion.
  • Sedona Secret 7 which encourages visitor dispersion to less populated areas.
  • The Sedona Cares visitor pledge is an educational tool to encourage better visitor behavior.
  • An initiative led by Sedona Lodging Council to providephotos and b-roll footage oflesser known areas and encourage them to stop using photos of “over loved” areas.
  • Front-line worker and concierge training to discourage promotion of overly used areas.
  • Sedona Recycling Quiz designed for visitors and locals to understand how to manage trash.

Voluntourists can help with trail work.


  • Visit Sedona promotes voluntourism opportunities to visitors while also offering coordination and promotion for local businesses and organizations.
  • Sedona has created a Love Our Locals campaign to drive local businesses. This campaign provides an opportunity to connect residents and visitors to locally owned and operated businesses, promote “made in Sedona” products, offer promotions and discounts to local residents.
  • Green meetings are a direct alignment of the Sedona brand, and care for the environment.

Areas of Sustainability and Stewardship

The implementation part of the tourism sustainability plan contains more than 30 tactics. Each is tracked and managed according to these parameters:

  • Description: An explanation of the tactic providing insight and key elements.
  • Timeline – How long it will take to achieve: Short (12-18 months), Mid (2-3 years), Long (4-5 years).
  • Pillars affected: If more than one objective is involved.
  • Lead partner: The entity (or entities) primarily responsible for moving the tactic forward.
  • Supporting partners: Other partners who will help implement the tactic.
  • Prospective metrics: Examples of the types of metrics and targets (if appropriate) that will help evaluate the effectiveness of the tactic.

Below are four examples of tactics from the Sustainable Tourism Plan, highlighting the level of collaboration, planning, and measurement.


Implementation of SCC&TB Sustainable Tourism Plan is supported with appropriate funding for each of the four pillars of the Plan. The City of Sedona provides primary funding for SCC&TB from the collection of sales and lodging tax. Visitor spending makes up 77% of all sales tax collected. Sales and bed tax rates are each currently at 3.5%. In 2014, Sedona’s lodging industry agreed to increase bed tax by .5% on the condition the SCC&TB would receive 55% of the total collections. A statewide change in law to allow short term rentals in Arizona significantly contributed still more to the budget, as the 1,000 short term rentals such as Airbnb in the area also pay bed tax. This pushed the tourism budget from $500,000 in FY14 to $2.4 million in 2019.

As a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the SCC&TB’s FY21 budget is expected to focus on rebuilding the economy. The budget in FY21, as allocated by sustainability objectives, shows a lop-sided tilt toward post-Covid economic recovery:

  1. Economy $1,800,000
  2. Environmental $171,000
  3. Quality of Life $271,000
  4. Visitor Experience $27,000

Measures of Success/ Results

Transparent tracking of the impact of the sustainability process is key. Using each objective, SCC&TB has developed baseline data points and measures the following, presented publicly and also reported into the City:

  • Environment—through perception of sustainability. Metrics include volume of trash collected, number of miles maintained by trail keeper resources, number of visitors signed on with educational programming.
  • Resident Quality of Life—a citizen survey is conducted by the City to measure perception from locals of quality of life.
  • Quality of the Economy—sales and bed-tax collections, measured throughout the year and not just in key tourism seasons.
  • Visitor Experience—visitor satisfaction, via survey, and whether it’s going up or down.

Some other key sustainability achievements in Sedona include:

  • Fly Friendly: In 2020, helicopter tours operators ceased overflights within Sedona’s city limits and over neighborhoods, sensitive prehistoric sites and resorts outside the city limits as part of a new Fly Friendly policy.
  • Transportation Improvements: In 2020, the City of Sedona completed Uptown traffic improvements, making vehicle and pedestrian flow more efficient, easing congestion, and contributing to the area’s aesthetic appeal; roundabouts that eliminate U turns and give access to new off-street parking; and a median with locally designed artwork that prevents mid-block pedestrian crossing and left-hand turns. Like Fly Friendly, the Uptown Improvements address all four pillars of sustainability.
  • Sustainability Certification: Low water use, energy conservation, recycling and using local products are hallmarks of sustainable business operations. Dozens of Sedona-based businesses and government offices have achieved sustainability certification, as determined by the Sustainability Alliance, a Sedona Verde non-profit organization that leads sustainability projects.
  • Governor’s Award: In 2019, the SCC&TB was honored with the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Arizona Cultural and Historic Preservation for its efforts in creation of the Sedona Sustainable Tourism Plan. The Award recognizes the year’s “most significant contribution to the cultural and historic preservation of the natural, cultural or aesthetic legacy of Arizona that inspires visitation to the state.”

Sedona’s “Fly Friendly” policy keeps helicopter tours away from the city and other sensitive areas.

Final Commentary

Sedona’s effort to research and create a truly comprehensive plan stands out against other Destination Management Organization efforts for several reasons. There are resources; there is a solid partnership with the City and elected officials; plus there has been intense dialogue and listening within the community to create a truly community-based sustainability plan. There was an 18-month planning process, with investment, resources, and then structure to see out the objectives. Wesselhoff believed the plan is solid for five years, with a possible few adjustments to tactics around climate change to be added in the future. She would expect a further GSTC assessment toward the end of the 5-year plan, as a means to benchmark overall progress.

Also striking is the way this plan has been designed to build tourism around the needs of the community, placing residents first and foremost. The planning process has helped the DMO shift its focus from the visitor to the resident as the number one client, including local business owners.

From listening came soul-searching for Wesselhoff. “Previously I was the biggest advocate and cheerleader for tourism. I believed it was really good for our community – the benefits drastically outweighed the inconveniences of tourism. But I don’t think I honestly and genuinely listened to complaints, because they were [merely] inconveniences, and [because] 10,000 people depended on tourism for their jobs – every single resident could have a job in tourism if they wanted to. This process allowed me to embrace the tradeoffs in a more thoughtful way and consider how we can positively impact those negative tradeoffs.”

Wesselhoff also believes the Sustainable Tourism Plan has already led to significant tactical wins for the local community. She cited the Fly Friendly program’s no-fly zone for air tours over residential areas – one of the legacies she will leave from her personal efforts as leader. For 18 months, the City and County (which operates the airport), tour operators, and other stewardship entities in the community came together as partners to create solutions to control helicopter noise. “Helicopter noise has been a pinch-point for locals,” she said. “Without the Sustainable Tourism Plan we never would have gotten there; it provided the framework to say ‘this is what the community wants.’”

While Wesselhoff was readying at the time of this 2020 interview to move into a new role as CEO at Visit Park City in Utah, she felt confident that Sedona’s stewardship efforts will continue, in large part because the Plan is positioned as something the entire community has bought into, bigger than just one person or one organization.

Having steered the process to create what she feels is a truly community-oriented tourism plan and meaningful engagement with residents, Wesselhoff offered words of wisdom for other DMOs: Engage with residents and recognize your potential role as community builders: “We need to listen to our residents as much or more than we listen to our visitors or our businesses. I learned so much through this process. The value of listening to that perspective was really meaningful.”

The following community partners participated in the Plan development process:
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality
Arizona Department of Transportation
Arizona Game and Fish Department
Arizona Public Service
Arizona State Parks and Trails
City of Sedona City Council
Coconino National Forest
Friends of the Forest Sedona
Friends of the Verde River
Keep Sedona Beautiful
Local First Arizona
National Park Service – River and Trails
Northern Arizona University Climate Program
Northern Arizona Climate Alliance
Northern Arizona Council of Governments
Oak Creek Watershed Council
Red Rock State Park
Red Rock Trail Fund
Sedona Airport Authority
Sedona Compost
Sedona Events Alliance
Sedona Heritage Museum
Sedona Lodging Council
Sedona Mountain Bike Coalition
Sedona Recycles
Sedona Sustainability Alliance
Sedona Verde Valley Tourism Council
Sedona Verde Valley Sustainability Alliance
US Fish and Wildlife Service
US Forest Service
Verde Front Collaborative


Doing It Better: ≠Khoadi-//Hôas, Namibia

Klip River Valley, #Khoadi-//Hoas conservancy, Namibia. All photos by Jonathan Tourtellot.

Namibia’s award-winning ≠Khoadi-//Hôas conservancy has often been cited as a success story in both conservation and community benefit. Destination Stewardship Report editor Jonathan Tourtellot takes a tourist-eye view of this community-run destination – part of our ongoing project to profile places with an effective method for holistic management in the spirit of GSTC’s Destination Criterion A1. This is the fifth in a series being assembled by the Destination Stewardship Center.

A Tourist Visits a Model Destination Stewardship Conservancy

19 May 2019 – It has taken 10 hours for our van to drive north and then west from Windhoek, first on excellent paved highways, then on broad gravel roads. As daylight fades, we pass a nondescript sign reading ≠KHOADI-//HÔAS CONSERVANCY. (The unusual characters represent different clicks in the local Damara language.)

A long drive up a mountain ridge and into growing darkness brings us to Grootberg Pass, elevation 1,540 meters, and a rustic parking area. Eventually a LandCruiser appears. It takes us grinding up a steep rocky track that would challenge a mule. We crest a rise, and behold, fairylandlike, the lights of the Grootberg Lodge.

Reputed to be one of the best in Namibia, the ≠Khoadi-//Hôas conservancy (pdf) is a repeat winner of destination accolades, including placement in the Sustainable Destinations Top 100. The conservancy constitution describes its mission: “To provide an incentive to rural people to conserve wildlife and other natural resources through shared decision-making and financial benefit.”

The community owns and helps run the Grootberg Lodge. In a normal year, wildlife tourism is the conservancy’s prime tourism moneymaker, at more than 75% of community revenue. Unlike many tourist accommodations among Namibia’s 86 conservancies operated on a joint venture agreement, Grootberg Lodge is 100% owned by the conservancy, and a contracted management company manages the Lodge on behalf of the conservancy community.

With about one person for each of its 3,300 square kilometers, the conservancy is roomy – larger than Luxembourg or the U.S. state of Rhode Island. The land is divided into various areas dedicated to settlement, agriculture, wildlife tourism (Grootberg and surrounds), and wildlife hunting, or combinations of these.

The staff treats us to a welcome drink on a deck that seems to hang over an inky abyss. We dine and retire, taken by guides with flashlights each to our own thatched bungalow.

Next morning, the seeming abyss reveals itself: The dramatic Klip River valley, scooped out of a semiarid plateau landscape. Its cliffs and mesas are painted in morning pastels, inviting exploration. The lodge was sited way up here for good reason.

Grootberg Lodge guest bungalows, made from local materials.

Context: How It Began, and Why
Led by the local Grootberg Farmers Union – itself formed in 1990 – ≠Khoadi-//Hôas formed in 1998 as part of Namibia’s program to help communal area residents benefit from wildlife and tourism by forming conservancies. With foreign assistance, the Grootberg Lodge was built soon thereafter, opening in 2005. It was Namibia’s first lodge to be fully owned by the community. The conservancy constitution describes the purpose: “To link conservation with rural development by enabling communal farmers to derive a direct financial income from the sustainable use of wildlife and tourism.”

Governance: Who’s in Charge?
A Management Committee elected by community members oversees tourism activities throughout the conservancy, along with ecological issues and wildlife management. Of the 3,500 or so conservancy residents 2,500 are voting members. Membership eligibility requires a minimum age of 18 and at least two years in residence. Management Committee members serve 5-year terms, limited to two consecutive terms. An Executive Committee handles day-to-day decisions, with the “Traditional Authority”– ethnic chiefs and their staffs – advising.

Not all Namibian conservancies are so well run, and some have fallen prey to corruption. By contrast, ≠Khoadi-//Hôas is consistently ranked one of the best managed. Why? “Total transparency, no matter how bad the situation might be,” says conservancy Manager Lorna Dax. Everything is audited, and the reports are public. In general, the conservancy strives to adhere to the central government’s five conditions for good conservancy governance:

  • Hold Annual General Meetings.
  • Properly elect the Conservancy Management Committee.
  • Produce annual financial statements.
  • Disburse as per the Benefit Distribution Plan.
  • Manage wildlife according to a game usage plan, reporting annually.

The Management Committee works with the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry, and Tourism and several NGOs, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Grootberg Farmers Union, the Namibia Association of CBNRM Support Organization, and others. The conservancy contracts with Journeys Namibia to run and market the Grootberg Lodge, but most of the staff is local, including assistant managers.

Many of the carefully trained staff and guides are from the local community. I might imagine it, but I detect a distinct sense of pride and ownership in their bearing and attitude. They don’t manage the lodge yet – that still falls to the joint-venture management company, Journeys Namibia – but one guide told me he thinks they are ready to take over in a year or two. Maybe so.

Funding: Who Pays?
In comparison to other, still somewhat impoverished rural areas, management reports funding as adequate. Community residents each receive benefits from the lodge, a campground, and a newly acquired smaller lodge, channeled through the conservancy.

According to Manager Dax, the conservancy during a normal year does not get financial support from the government or NGOs, mostly just technical support and a bit of funding to compensate farmers that lose livestock through human-wildlife conflict. “During the Covid-19 pandemic,” she adds, “we have relied heavily on the grants from the government’s Covid relief fund, which help us to cover operational costs and natural resource management. Without these grants most of the conservancies would have closed their doors by now.”

How Conservation Works
Among local wildlife, the conservancy website lists “desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, giraffe, mountain zebra, eland, kudu, gemsbok, black-faced impala, springbok, duiker, steenbok, klipspringer, warthog, ostrich and baboon. Predators include lion, leopard, cheetah, jackal, spotted and brown hyaena.”

Zebras browse the conservancy’s rocky Etendeka Plateau.

Different areas of the conservancy are set aside for wildlife watching, local hunting, and tourist trophy hunting. (A 2020 podcast discusses that last controversial activity from the African point of view.)

Eight “Environmental Shepherds” hired by the conservancy act as game rangers and ecological watchdogs, overseen by a Co-ordinator who is also employed by the conservancy. The shepherds ensure that any hunting is legal and any claims for livestock losses to predators are legitimate. Payment for livestock loss through predation is based on on-site inspection of the carcass.

My wife, Sally, signed up for a 6-hour rhino tracking excursion. “It was not just a tour,” she told me on her return, looking suitably trail-weary. “They were really tracking an animal. I’ve never experienced anything like that. This was not easy! We spent hours trying to find a rhinoceros.” Then she described something you cannot do in a national park. “When the trackers finally spotted one, we left the Land Cruiser and went scrambling over rocks to finally see it. A young male, suspicious but patient enough to let us look at it.” In the parks, tourists must generally stay in the vehicles.

Land Use
Community-endorsed zonation delineates areas dedicated to settlement, agriculture, livestock grazing, wildlife tourism (where we were), and wildlife hunting, or combinations of these.

This arrangement works only as long as it works. When I asked what would happen if a mining company showed up with an attractive offer in exchange for starting a mining operation with concomitant pollution, the answer came back, “The community would probably go for it, but all required channels should be followed and all stakeholders involved.”

Time for the sundowner.

Community Engagement
The Lodge gives preference to residents for buying local firewood, vegetables, etc. In addition to electing the Management Committee, residents have priority in applying for Lodge & campground job openings. Conservancy members also participate in game counts for conservation management, and attend an Annual General Meeting to participate in the conservancy’s decision-making process. The conservancy, for instance, uses earnings from the lodge for such things as stationery and supplies for schools, community projects, scholarships, soccer tournaments, and funeral assistance.

We take a sunset game drive around the Etendeka Plateau behind the Lodge, a barren-looking tableland strewn with red rocks that nevertheless supports a variety of wildlife. We see lots of zebra, an oryx, and a lone jackal. And then, of course, comes the customary gin-and-tonic sundowner.

At dinner, Sally mentions her discomfort with enjoying our first-world affluence amid the hard-scrabble reality of rural life in Namibia: “I feel guilty.” I can only point out that we are paying fair prices to a business that earns money for the community and incentivizes wildlife protection, including that rhino. In that sense, we are a useful part of the ecosystem.

After dinner, a surprise. The staff and kitchen crew come out and perform songs and a couple of dance routines. They’re good at it, a product of the enthusiastic singing competitions organized among the staffs of Namibia’s various joint-venture conservatories. Post-dinner singing has become a custom – and a lagniappe for guests. How often do you get serenaded by your chef?

Diners watch after-dinner singing at Grootberg Lodge.

The Measures of Success
The metrics for evaluating progress are simple: tourism revenues and game counts. If both are steady or increasing, that’s a good sign, provided the revenues are distributed fairly and species of game don’t exceed sustainable levels.

≠Khoadi-//Hôas in the Time of Covid
With the Grootberg Lodge being heavily dependent on long-haul tourism, the pandemic of 2020 brought a severe test to ≠Khoadi-//Hôas. “As most if not all conservancies in Namibia depend on tourism and conservation hunting as the only source of income, their operations were crippled by the sudden outbreak of Covid-19. The conservancy had to stop all benefits going to the community, as there was no income,” reports Manager Dax. “Regular meetings could not be held due to restrictions imposed by the government, and this caused uncertainty among community members. Staff at the lodges were sent home with salary cuts, and poverty increased in the conservancy area.”

In Africa’s conservancies, that’s apparently what happens when tourism goes away.

Despite its vulnerability to a sudden tourism drop-off, the ≠Khoadi-//Hôas model is one of the best anywhere in our “A1” search for destinations that come close to meeting the GSTC’s Criterion A1 for holistic destination management. “KH” has good community benefit and participation, good conservation of natural resources, appropriate land use, and at least some cultural benefit.

But this model is most likely limited to places with community-held land, or with land held in trust for the community (as in Namibia), or with what could be called a “commons ethic,” a cultural predisposition to see land as a communal asset rather than in terms of transactional ownership. It’s hard, for instance, to picture a collection of cantankerous, U.S.-style individual landowners all agreeing to the communitarian structure. The existence of the Grootberg Farmers Union also helped prepare the ground, setting a community precedent for a cooperative undertaking. Destinations with thriving producer cooperatives might consider building on that approach.

All that said, the democratic Conservancy Management Committee approach is one that could well be adapted to smaller destinations anywhere, as it marries tourism management with community benefit and conservation of destination assets – mainly wildlife, in this case.

If other conservancies in Africa and elsewhere can begin measuring up to the same standard, this seems like one of the best possible ways to combine conservation with benefits to local people, funded by responsible tourism. Enlightened leadership and “total transparency” seem to be keystones of success.

On the morning of our third day, we bid a reluctant goodbye to the enthusiastic staff of the Grootberg Lodge and descend their improbably steep access track down to the parking area, where we clamber back into the van and wind our way off into the flatlands and famed Etosha National Park. There I would see a difference: Etosha would offer many wonderful moments, and the lodge employees, working for a national park management company, were capable enough, but they acted like, well, employees. It wasn’t Grootberg.

~  ~  ~

Thanks to Martha Mulokoshi and Omagano Shooya for assistance with this report. Portions of my visiting-tourist account previously appeared in the former National Geographic Open Explorers platform.

Doing It Better: Crown of the Continent

[Above: Rocky Mountain skyline at Glacier National Park, Montana. All photos by Jonathan Tourtellot.]

Editor’s note: As destinations plan for eventual recovery from the pandemic, they have an unprecedented opportunity to manage tourism more effectively. With this post about North America’s “Crown of the Continent,” we offer the third in our profiles of destination organizations that approach the standard set forth in the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s critical destination-management Criterion A1, which reads in part:

“The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, . . . for the management of environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues.”

This holistic requirement seems obvious, yet very few places around the world come close to meeting it. Below is Ellen Rugh’s profile of another one that does: the “Crown of the Continent.” We hope this information will provide other places with ideas on how better to manage tourism’s hazards and benefits. To join in our search for more examples of holistic destination management, or submit a candidate for profiling, read more here.

Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council –
Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia

N.B. – This report was compiled before the onset of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. It is based on Destination Stewardship Center questionnaire responses and follow-up interviews.


Since 2006, the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council has become a strong and active transboundary partnership, characterized by a high level of commitment, cooperation, and collaboration between local stakeholders in Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana. Although not a legally mandated organization, the Council has found their success, their respondents told us, by carefully selecting a group of individuals “who are all willing to work beyond borders, and while they can have varying opinions about how to resolve certain issues, they all strive for the same end goals.” Covering a 7.3-million-hectare region (18 million acres), the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council prides itself on the vast number of stakeholders within their network, including crucial tribal relationships. The Council focuses on creating local experiences for  visitors, allowing any local residents, from tourism practitioners to the mom down the street, to propose sites and attractions for the Council to include in its MapGuide, so long as they meet the principles of geotourism as originally put forth via National Geographic: “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.”

Geographic Description

The Crown of the Continent encompasses Crown of the Continent mapapproximately 73,000 sq kilometers (about 28,000 sq miles). Its transboundary jurisdiction includes the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and the surrounding lands and communities in Alberta, British Columbia, and Montana, including five First People nations. The region includes within its jurisdiction over 680 sites, attractions, and accommodations.


The Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council’s transboundary partnership was created through their first catalyst project, a National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide, in an effort to implement cooperative projects that expand or enhance visitor and resident opportunities and encourage sustainable businesses through geotourism activities, including stewardship, education, and regional promotion. Such a task becomes crucial in an area dotted by small towns, whose voice in protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the area may not typically be heard, and the National Geographic requirement for citizen participation provided an opportunity for them.

To maintain their success as a transboundary organization, the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council thrives on effective partnerships and attributes success to “the relationships, a shared pride in the region, and the potential to develop the economies of the communities while stewarding, enhancing, and celebrating our special character of place.” The Council’s network is enormous, with 33,099 e-newsletter subscribers as of 2016. With their flexibility and reputation for collaboration, the Crown says that “stakeholders often approach us for assistance, because we know so many people in the region and have a vast database. Especially in an 18 million acre region, connecting with the locals and connecting the locals with each other, is one of our most valuable assets.”

The iconic Prince of Wales Hotel presides over Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta.

To leverage such a vast network, 195 volunteer field experts within the Council provide recommendations for what the Council features on their platforms and MapGuides. These authentic “hyperlocal” tourist offerings comprise the community-based businesses, organizations, and points of interest that would be typically overlooked by an outsider. Field experts may be an officially nominated tourism practitioner or just a resident citizen with a passion for sharing her locale with others. The Council acknowledges that these locals hold the most knowledge and connection to the place. Their recommendations on the best places to visit, places to stay, and things to do are then vetted by the project coordinator under National Geographic oversight. Crown of the Continent takes pride that each nomination shared with visitors is a place most respected and regarded by locals.


The Council labels themselves a content development and curation program. All content within their website, MapGuides, and social media pages must meet geotourism principles as originally set forth by National Geographic.

Crown of the Continent MapGuide (center) amid brochures on display at a local business.

The Council promotes buying local; employing locals; green purchasing; staying in eco-friendly and locally-owned unique lodging; participating in human-powered activities; volunteering; visiting First Nation and Tribal Lands, designated dirt roads, and scenic routes; and stepping away from your car. Starting in 2016, the Council has sent their listed organizations and businesses a window decal and digital link badge that identify them as a National Geographic Crown of the Continent Destination, all at no charge.

While the Council does not have the capacity to plan events and activities on their own, they do promote unique and authentic festivals and events on their website and MapGuide, including powwows, Earth Day Celebrations, sustainable-forestry tours and programming, bioblitzes, wildlife and wildflower festivals, heritage and culture celebrations, rodeos, volunteer opportunities, and “Green” contests. Both local residents and visitors may participate in these activities.

Given their broad network and insight on all of the unique offerings throughout the region, the Council develops trip plans that focus on hyperlocal experiences and moving the visitor (and residents) around the region. As the Council explaines, visitors typically come to the region with a preplanned “Plan A” (typically, Glacier National Park or Waterton Lakes National Park), and once they arrive, usually decide on their “Plan B” (places to go, places to stay, and things to do outside of the National Parks).

Farm-owned market and coffee shop in Fernie, B.C. typifies the Crown’s “hyperlocal” recommendations for tourists.

With so many different experiences available, the Council coaches local businesses on how to steer visitors towards unique, authentic, and hyperlocal experiences by advising on digital marketing strategies, customer service techniques, and suggested messaging when recommending experiences. The Council says that most businesses have a desktop copy of the physical National Geographic Crown of the Continent Mapguide to use as a quick reference, and their website has a “Trip Plan” feature that allows businesses to create custom Trip Plans for their respective customers. These Trip Plans can be shared via their social media platforms, sent as an email, or embedded as a widget on their website.

Give its vast land coverage, the Council has found it difficult to take a direct lead on product development. Their strength is in giving others the tools to develop distinctive experiences through capacity building, networking, and promotion. However, they will jump in when a special project arises, such as in 2016, when they assisted in the creation of “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” a large-format photo exhibition and book. The exhibition was displayed in the C.M Russell Museum, the Montana State Capital, the US Senate Building’s Russell Rotunda, and the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Hard copies of the book are still sold in Glacier National Park Conservancy’s online bookstore.

Organizational Structure and Governance

Given the bureaucratic complications that arise from being transboundary organization, the Council is not filed as a 501(c)3 or (c)4. Instead, it operates under a fiscal agent, the Whitefish Convention & Visitors Bureau, in Montana.

The Council is composed of 8-10 Executive Committee members and one project coordinator, representing over 730 businesses and organizations. The Executive Committee, who holds final decision-making authority, comprises representatives from the three major funding organizations, plus a combination of representatives from different agencies focusing on tourism, culture, or heritage. The Council tries to maintain at least one tribal representative on their Executive Committee at all times. Each member at-large provides beneficial input and fulfills a wide range of duties for the Council. The Executive Committee, along with anyone else affiliated with the Council, strives to adhere to geotourism principles.

There are no term limits for Executive Committee members, and because the organization does not require any formal mandates, there is no official election process. Instead, the organization has found their success by carefully selecting a group of individuals “who are all willing to work beyond borders, and while they can have varying opinions about how to resolve certain issues, they all strive for the same end goals.” Executive Committee members are involved depending on their available time commitment and employment status with their respective organizations. If an Executive Committee member wishes or needs to be phased out of the Executive Committee, the Committee selects a replacement at the Annual Executive Committee Retreat. When family health forced a key popular leader to step down during the Council’s formative years, the organization was thus able to carry on with relative ease. The Council’s goal is to always have someone representing the three core funders and the fiscal agent, plus like-minded conservation organizations, government entities, business owners, tribes, and DMOs.

This Executive Committee sets the long-term and annual strategic work plan. Special projects may require forming sub-committees. Most often, these groups include one or two Executive Committee members and several other individuals such as representatives from nonprofits, government agencies, businesses, DMOs, or people with a skill set that will elevate that project.

Informally, the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council also organizes an arrangement of partners and members, with “partners” being those who disperse any information and announcements throughout the Crown’s network, and “members” being those who have passed the vetting process and are represented within the Council’s website and MapGuide. Last, the Council has an arrangement with volunteer field experts, who provide the hyperlocal recommendations that would be typically overlooked by an outside visitor.

Sustainability and Stewardship

The Council focuses all of their work in supporting the principles of geotourism and good destination stewardship, thus creating a model in which sustainability ties into every project. The “Events and Things to Do” listings on their website include information about “Leave No Trace” practices, wildlife encounter tips, volunteer opportunities, appropriate conduct when visiting cultural and heritage sites, who and how businesses support local conservation, and preservation and community beautification efforts.

• Indigenous peoples. The Council also takes care to include  indigenous/tribal partners in all quadrants of the Crown of the Continent, actively seeking feedback from the First Peoples’ representatives who serve on the Executive Committee as partners. Indigenous/tribal content has been vetted and approved by respective First Nations before it is published. Each First Nation provides a strict list of places, experiences, and stories that are allowed to be shared. Even for content that may not seem directly related to First Peoples, the Council tries to share the cultural story behind a place. The goal is to be a platform for First Peoples to tell their stories in their voices.

• Restorative activities. In one case, the Council partnered in the planning, creation, and promotion of the Castle Parks in Alberta, an ecologically strategic piece of land of within Yellowstone-Yukon corridor previously viewed as a government-owned no-man’s land. Lack of enforcement, extractive industry, boondocking, and motorized vehicles had caused significant deterioration and degradation to sensitive ecosystems.

Save-the-Castle demonstrators, Alberta.

The Council helped push for proper planning, monitoring, and infrastructure for upgrading the area into park status, and promoting it via social media and the MapGuide.

• Climate mitigation. The Council has partnered with the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Authority to coordinate routes for installing electric charging vehicles across British Columbia. The British Columbia section is complete all the way to Crowsnest Pass, where Alberta is picking up the route. Most of the charging infrastructure has been installed in the Alberta section of Crown of the Continent and south to the U.S. border. Montana has begun the EV station installation process. Several other routes throughout the Crown are in development as an asset to both locals and tourists.

Managing Tourism Sustainably

While the Council does not have a formalized plan for addressing overtourism or mass tourism, they claim that given the nature of the region, most tourism products offered do not lend themselves to mass tourism, and it has not posed a threat thus far other than at overburdened Glacier National Park.

Saint Mary Lake, a popular photo stop in oft-overtouristed Glacier National Park, Montana.

As the Council strictly adheres to the principles of geotourism, they focus all activities on authentic, local experiences that benefit local communities, dispersing visitors around the region and away from the national park. The Council helps promote recreational opportunities, especially trail systems beyond park boundaries. The policy is to follow strict criteria on what gets promoted, checking whether the area is ecologically or culturally sensitive, the trail is in good condition, and existing trailhead infrastructure (parking, outhouse, signage, etc) can support increased visitation.

The Council is helping to create a State of the Crown of the Continent Report to better understand and communicate a multitude of indicators for the region. This will direct future work, provide a measurement of the region’s health – of what’s going well and what isn’t – and provide a nonpolitical document that can be used to argue the importance of supporting, enhancing, and sustaining the region.

Additionally, the Council compiles a running list of areas and points of interest that they will not promote on their platforms, as the areas are either too fragile to handle increased visitation or are sacred sites. The Council works closely with government agencies, conservation organizations, and tribal representatives to ensure this list, for internal use only, is always up to date.

Community Engagement

The Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council encompasses stakeholders representing 53 organizations, tribal nations, agencies, and businesses,[1] who have contributed time, expertise, and/or financial support. The Council also has had an arranged partnership with National Geographic, which has cobranded their website and assists in the development and printing of the Crown of the Continent MapGuide. During the creation of this project, an even broader set of stakeholders were included to provided nominations, comments and ideas. The Council operates as an open‐invitation advisory committee of interested individuals, and has a networking relationship with local nonprofit organizations and universities, allowing all parties to leverage key resources. Says the Council Coordinator, Sheena Pate, “Our networking ability remains our greatest strength. Our government partners leverage to their advantage our nimble ability to move freely throughout the Crown of the Continent and our desire to always be connecting the region, since they are restricted on travel abilities and their already mandated work.”

Her tips for other destinations: “Bring together the willing. Be sure to have diversity of opinions.” The network is what gives their Council heft. “We find great joy in connecting those who work in their silos and have yet to realize their connection to other silos. We’re always putting the ‘puzzle pieces’ together and connecting what might be seen as differing voices.” The common ground? “Ultimately most of those living and working in the region are here because of the sense of place and outdoor heritage.”

The Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council does not serve as the locality’s official DMO. Each partner DMO contributes annually to the direction, planning, and funding of the transboundary partnership, while pursuing initiatives in their local jurisdictions that align with goals of the Geotourism Council. The Council claims that their success as a whole is an aggregation of all stakeholders, both DMOs and others, creating individual successes within their jurisdictions.

Furthermore, the Council not only works across the international border, but also across tribal nations. The Council reports that building these relationships has been pivotal, not only for responsible tourism development, but for external affairs as well: “Receiving the trust of local tribal groups is one of the most important things a destination stewardship council can do. While state and provincial governments within the Crown of the Continent jurisdiction have been working to accomplish this for years, they have moved in such a structured way. The Crown has been able to build trust much more quickly, through an informal, personal approach.” Tribal groups work with the Council directly on updating and adding points of interest on MapGuide and website.

Local business, Crowsnest, Alberta.

The Council also serves on the planning committee for the annual Roundtable on the Crown of the Continent. The conference focuses on overarching issues, and the Council pulls in business and organization participation, recruits regional and national presenters and keynotes, solicits sponsors, and assists with marketing the conference. Tribal members, residents, students, government agencies, non-profit organizations, industries, and businesses all attend. The Council has lately shifted to an advisory role in order to give more attention to repeating the success of its 2018 Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit.


As of 2019, the Council’s budget falls at approximately $75,000 annually, predominantly funded by the Montana Department of Commerce’s Office of Tourism & Business Development, the Kootenay Rockies Tourism, and the Alberta Southwest Regional Alliance.  This funding covers the project coordinator salary, website hosting and maintenance, branding, and any additional special projects, travel, and conferences. The Whitefish Convention & Visitors Bureau acts as the Council’s fiscal agent for free. Additional funding may be called upon for special projects, such as a MapGuide reprint.

Business and organizational membership is free including representation on the Crown of the Continent platforms (website, MapGuide, and social media). The Council says “no one pays to play” since these members already provide indirect financial support by paying membership fees to the Regional Tourism Alliances or Convention and Visitors Bureaus who, in turn, support the Council.

Measures of success

The Crown does not collect data as an organization. Instead, each region gathers its own visitor statistics, which the Council will evaluate to determine the quality of the visitors and tourism experience. Looking beyond visitation quantity, they seek to measure visitor demographics, such as income and age, as well as identifying each visitor’s length of stay, locations, and spending. They have found an increase in length of stay, with visitors more often frequenting local businesses. Lastly, they try to determine whether the most frequented businesses and accommodations are those that give back to the community or share messages of conservation.


The Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council may prove that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and stay true to conscious, ethically minded stances. While sharing a similar set of geographic borders and tourism assets compared to B.C.’s Thompson Okanagan, this Council has taken a vastly different organizational approach. By bringing together the willing and a diverse set of stakeholders, the Council makes decisions that stretch far – opting for quality over quantity. With limited funding, Council members appear to be doing an excellent job of pushing their resources based on what is most important for that year, although I would love to see them expand their funding, add on another full-time staff, and get capacity to implement greater long-term strategy. With the funding that they do receive, the Council feels confident in their budget every year, even with a small selection of donors, due to their invaluable transboundary relationships across the US-Canadian border and across tribal nations, plus the thousands of stakeholders participating within their network. The National Geographic Geotourism MapGuide being critical to its genesis, the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council demonstrates the value of a catalytic project that can blossom into much more robust initiatives.

On the other hand, the Council lacks an official mandate. While this allows for flexibility, it does create vulnerability. In fact, many other geotourism councils that started under the same National Geographic program have since fallen out of existence or lack true authority, which shows us both the fragility of unofficial organizations, but also the strength of the Crown in overcoming adversity and taking the correct course of action. Furthermore, while the National Geographic name provides major brand recognition, the arrangement is vulnerable. Funding may be needed to maintain this label, or National Geographic may drop the program. Last, given the changing landscape in technology and smartphone reliance, I wonder if evolving their successful MapGuide project from a mobile-friendly website into a true smartphone app will be critical in coming years.

We would like to collect more concrete examples of project implementation, both successes and failures. Our interviews were able to highlight a few examples, but limited timing still left us wanting more.  —Ellen Rugh

[1] Organizations that have participated in the Crown of the Continent Geotourism Council include:
1) Alberta Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Recreation
2) Alberta Southwest Regional Alliance
3) Alpine Artisans Inc
4) Blackfeet Nation
5) Blood Tribe/Kainai Nation
6) Bureau of Land Management, United State Department of Interior
7) Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition
8) Chinook Country Tourist Association
9) Chinook Institute for Community Stewardship
10) College of the Rockies, Tourism Knowledge Cluster
11) Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
12) Continental Divide Trail Alliance
13) Cowboy Trail Tourism Association
14) Dames on the Range
15) Fernie Chamber of Commerce/Tourism Fernie
16) Flathead Beacon
17) Flathead Convention and Visitor Bureau
18) Frank Slide Interpretive Centre
19) Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission
20) Glacier National Park
21) Glacier Natural History Association
22) Southwest Montana Regional Tourism Commission
23) Henry P. Kendall Foundation
24) Kalispell Chamber / Convention & Visitor Bureau
25) Kootenay Rockies Tourism, British Columbia
26) Ktunaxa Nation
27) Miistakis Institute
28) Montana Department of Tourism and Business Development
29) Montana Scenic Loop
30) National Geographic Society, Center for Sustainable Destination
31) National Parks Conservation Association
32) National Park Service, United States Department of Interior
33) Pekisko Group
34) Rocky Mountain Grizzly Centre
35) Central Montana Regional Tourism Commission
36) Seeley Lake Chamber of Commerce
37) Sonoran Institute
38) Sustainable, Obtainable Solutions
39) Swan Valley Connections
40) The Sustainability Fund of Kalispell, Montana
41) Top 10 Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies
42) Trail of the Great Bear
43) Travel Alberta
44) U.S. Forest Service, United State Department of Agriculture
45) University of Calgary, Program of Environmental Design
46) University of Montana, Center of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy
47) University of Montana, Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research
48) Waterton Lakes National Park
49) Waterton Park Chamber of Commerce
50) Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau
51) Wilburforce Foundation
52) Wildsight
53) Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative

Doing It Better: Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico

[Above: The town of Tequila. Photo: German Lopez from Pixabay ]

Editor’s note: With this post we offer the second of our profiles of destination organizations that at least partially meet the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s destination-management criterion A1 (formerly A2), which reads in part:

“The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, . . . for the management of environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues.”

The requirement seems obvious, yet very few places around the world come even remotely close to meeting it. Below is Ellen Rugh’s profile of another one that does. We hope this information will provide other places with ideas on how better to manage tourism’s hazards and benefits. To join in our search for more examples of holistic destination management, or submit a candidate for profiling, read more here.

The Council of Integral Development of Tequila A.C. (CODIT): Using Advanced Tech for Destination Management


The town and municipality of Tequila is in the west-central state of Jalisco, Mexico. Founded in 2013 as a civic association, CODIT presents us with a broad-reaching model of a destination management organization (DMO) that uses 21st-century technological monitoring and data collecting in order to make the most informed decisions on sustainable tourism development and destination stewardship.

With its genesis through Mexico’s Magic Towns program, CODIT has managed to survive, if not thrive, through the country’s changes in government, unlike many of its Magic Towns counterparts.  Today, Tequila’s in-progress drive for certification as an “Intelligent Destination” by the Secretary of Tourism of Spain (SEGITTUR) drives many of CODIT’s core concepts. CODIT’s representative, Federico de Arteaga Vidiella, provided much of the following data. He sits on the Council and is responsible for the Intelligent Destination project.


The CODIT model stretches beyond just tourism. In fact, “Sustainable Tourism Development” represents just one core concept for the organization, with additional branches dedicated to “Social Development, Culture, And Values,” “Development of Infrastructure, Environment and Urban Planning,” and “Economic, Institutional, Jurisdictional and Administrative Development.”

Working towards its certification as a SEGITTUR Intelligent Destination, CODIT gathers data from sensors, apps, smart phones, etc. to increase the effectiveness of local tourism products and services. To promote distinctive experiences, CODIT has installed Wifi access within the entire historic area and created an interactive app with push notification. Tourists can log in to learn the best photo spots, services offerings, and transportation routes around town.  Using big data to measure tourist distribution throughout the city, CODIT’s app strives to incorporate population groups that have not benefited so far from tourism. If you’re a tourist waiting for your chosen restaurant, it can suggest different places to eat or other things to do while waiting, such as a distillery tour or a walk in a different part of town.

CODIT thus opens up new opportunities for businesses, as tourists don’t end up concentrated in the historic center and eating at the few nearby restaurants. This model not only redistributes economic benefit, but also avoids visitor dissatisfaction by lowering restaurant wait times.


Tequila’s tourist system communicates experiences through different channels, such as through tourist apps, social networks, the state and federal secretaries of tourism, and private companies at the national and international level.

CODIT additionally works with the Directorate of Tourism of the City Council and with the Magic Towns Committee to schedule cultural, sporting, environmental and entertainment events. Residents get involved in a natural way, since Tequila’s society participates in many of these events, processions, and parties, either through organization, communication, direct participation, or assistance. To help develop adventure tourism in the region, CODIT has also sponsored local guides and tour operators to complete excursionist certification courses.

Sustainability and Stewardship

CODIT’s main strategy being sustainability, and the main vocation of Tequila being tourism, sustainable tourism has become CODIT’s keystone. The council considers sustainability multidisciplinary – economic, social, environmental, and institutional – and integrates explicit responsibilities for sustainability into their projects, working groups, international certifications, and more. Working groups for sustainability, innovation, technology, accessibility, and governance operate within the framework of the Magical Towns and Smart Tourist Destination Committee. Each group works to accomplish projects both within and across these themes.

As a Magic Town within the World Heritage agave landscape inscribed under UNESCO and a candidate for certification as a SEGITTUR Intelligent Destination, Tequila must therefore protect the sustainable, natural, cultural, and aesthetic character of the place. To assist in environmental protection, for instance, CODIT has implemented a recycling program and has constructed a nursery to restore endangered native plant species.

Even with tourism development being its main focus, CODIT extends its reach into other areas related to destination stewardship. For example, CODIT assisted in supporting one young local resident’s project relating to street dogs, sharing their technology and data to help him map the area, identify the location of the dogs, and decide the safest place to move them.

Managing Tourism Sustainably

CODIT states that Tequila has not yet had problems with overtourism in the destination. Tequila’s desire to achieve a sustainable tourism plan right from the beginning intrinsically incorporates the management of mass tourism. Using their Intelligent Destination technology, CODIT compares year-over-year peak season visitor statistics and identifies the major hotspot locations. With this data, they can identify the amount of traffic around the more heavily touristed historic area, for example, and install the necessary infrastructure to meet demand. They also measure transportation types and levels to ensure that people are dispersed better throughout the city, thus improving economic development.

Grilled corn vendor in Tequila. Photo by Gzzz.

Community Engagement

CODIT claims federal, state, and municipal participation, as well as inclusion of private business associations, NGOs, and local universities. These stakeholders came together to collectively set CODIT’s initial goals and long-term strategic plan. During this start-up phase, CODIT says that the stakeholders agreed upon about 70 to 80% of issues. Any issues with unsettled differences or concerns were removed, so that the long-term vision statement could be set with everyone in agreement.

CODIT cites the most effective element in their governance process has been the election of decisive leaders who represent the collective interest of local stakeholders and truly want to make changes. The council’s representative, Federico de Arteaga Vidiella, bluntly states that in certain situations extended deliberation among all community stakeholders may not be the best method to achieve results. Instead, CODIT encourages the voice of local residents through their representation by the board’s Citizen Co-President, and through consultation on specific projects. CODIT additionally urges participation from local universities, because many students and faculty are local themselves. CODIT also recognizes that local engagement depends on the character of the place. Here, where tourism and tequila production are the main vocations, they must make sure the voices of tequila farmers, distillers, and more are heard as well as hotels, restaurants, and tour operators.

For specific projects, the council understands that active communication with local stakeholders is crucial to success and local acceptance, because the residents will believe more in projects with which they can participate. On a neighborhood renewal project, for example, CODIT wanted to bring vibrancy to some less-trafficked areas with bright, new paint colors. For this simple project, CODIT conducted surveys, spoke directly with locals and civil society groups, and consulted architectural institutions in local universities to decide on the best colors to represent Tequila.

Organization Structure and Governance

CODIT was strategically founded as a civic association in order to make the organization less susceptible to changes in government and thus able to create long-term plans that would not rely on any particular political party for survival. This legal arrangement was also intended to increase business investment through tax incentives and to allow leverage of resources from international organizations, such as the Inter-American Development Bank.

CODIT does not hold scheduled internal elections and tends instead to act on consensus. Every year, for example, the council has to agree that the current citizen co-chair should continue in that role. The council does have the ability to vote out a person if needed, but so far it has never done so.

CODIT comprises of a multifaceted governance arrangement, currently composed of 44 members who fall within four main groups: founding members, active members, honorary members, and operative members. Each provides a certain level of support within the organization.

Operations and technical structure: CODIT incorporates active members, operative members, and a technical council into their organization structure. Four technical advisors and three operative personnel support the team. CODIT says that a key to their success is having a full-time, paid coordinator, as well as having both operative and strategic management on constant basis. External alliances provide crucial technical and operative resources.

Administrative and representative structure: The Board of Directors includes a citizen co-chair, a government co-chair, a secretary, a treasurer, and a spokesperson, who hold the final decision-making authority. A group of additional advisors play a role in strategic planning, including a representative from the Tequila Route and one from Grupo JB, a private company best known for their Jose Cuervo tequila. Thus a broad range of organizations can have some voice in CODIT affairs.

A jimador, an agave farmer, tends the plants that yield tequila and characterize the region’s inscription as a World Heritage site. Photo: Giacomo Bruno.

Even without formal internal elections, CODIT reports that about 20% of the council changes regularly due to external group elections. Representatives from private organizations, such as hoteliers’ associations, restaurant associations, etc, may shift representation based on their own elections. The government co-chair has rotated as the municipal government changes, with elections occurring every three years. Thus a good, naturally-occurring rotation of voices represents member interests.


CODIT works on an annual budget of around $150,000, largely financed by the federal and state secretaries of tourism and by Grupo JB. The Inter-American Development Bank has also provided project-specific funding in the past and helps support the CODIT website. Members must additionally contribute to the council through expertise, money, in-kind support, or time. One business member, for instance, seconded one of its own people to work in CODIT for a full year, documenting all tourist products offered in Tequila.

Measures of Success

CODIT attributes their success to the clear indicators and pre-established goals outlined in their long-term strategic plan. Every month CODIT evaluates progress using the indicators established by SEGITTUR within the tourism pillars of governance, sustainability, innovation, technology and accessibility. (Unfortunately, we have so far been unable to obtain any examples of progress reported.)

My Commentary

CODIT’s technical innovations and big data solutions show a new side to destination management, perhaps eliminating some of the problems that destinations face before they occur. Accessibility and connectivity drive visitors into the city by creating easy-access to information. CODIT has a firm vision and organization structure, with careful consideration taken during its inception process to ensure long-term governance that can withstand political changes affecting funding.

While CODIT has said that their funding has varied based on political changes over the years, the council’s survival attests to its careful management, especially in comparison to many other destinations originally designated under Mexico’s Magic Towns initiative.

Alternatively, CODIT can do more in terms of stewardship. I would love to see CODIT take a stronger role in partnering with local stakeholders to further develop distinctive tourism experiences. Additionally, the data collected shows little evidence of any vetting process for their promotional materials that places greater emphasize tourism businesses who have championed sustainability or supported their communities through impact tourism.

Local stakeholder engagement is key to holistic destination management. Compared to our other case studies, this council does not stress community deliberative processes, although they do gather project-specific community feedback and include a wide array of public, private, and civil society interests within their governance structure.

In this case, further research would be required to collect more evidence of outreach to ensure local resident satisfaction, or evidence of adaptive strategy. Additionally, while CODIT champions sustainability and transparency, we found difficulties in accessing the documents relating to the performance of CODIT in terms of SEGITTUR’s specific indicators. This is crucial to understanding their exact performance in project implementation and sustainability, and establishing credibility beyond self-reported claims.

We welcome comments from those with knowledge of Tequila and its stewardship.

Doing It Better: Thompson Okanagan, B.C.

[Above: Okanagan scene. Photo: Allen Jones/TOTA]

Toward holistic destination stewardship – Profile #1

Thompson Okanagan Tourism Authority (TOTA),
British Columbia, Canada

Editor’s note: With this post we offer the first of our profiles of destination organizations that at least partially meet the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s  destination-management criterion A2, which reads in part:

“The destination has an effective organization, department, group, or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism, . . . for the management of environmental, economic, social, and cultural issues.”

The requirement seems obvious, yet very few places around the world come even remotely close to meeting it. Below is Ellen Rugh’s profile of one that does, with more profiles to come. We hope this information will provide other places with ideas on how better to manage tourism’s hazards and benefits. To join in our search for more examples of holistic destination management read more here.


Founded in 1956, TOTA had followed the historically linear path of focusing themselves solely as a destination marketing organization for the Thompson Okanagan region. TOTA began to revamp this model around 2011, and since then, has forged a guiding path towards successful destination stewardship. As one of the five regional DMOs (Destination Marketing/Management Organizations) represented under Destination BC’s “Super, Natural British Columbia” brand, TOTA manages to push the conventional limits of a DMO while avoiding any major structural overhauls. Today, they operate under the mission “to stimulate ongoing sustainable growth by embracing the value of tourism through community engagement, innovative leadership in promoting authentic experiences, and inspiring creative collaboration.”

Thompson Okanagan region

Geographic Description

The Thompson Okanagan region lies in the southern interior of British Columbia, Canada and encompasses a land area of 71,600 km / 27,644 mi., about the same size of the Irish Republic. Some 500,000 inhabitants live within the region, spread across 90 towns, villages, and hamlets, as well as 33 Indigenous communities. [1]


Under the visionary leadership of Glenn Mandziuk, the current CEO, TOTA began to recognize its need to shift both their resources and mentality away from marketing alone and toward a more holistic management approach. As the first step in accomplishing this, TOTA set out to develop their Ten-Year Regional Tourism Strategy, creating an advisory steering committee to embark on a road-trip to communicate with local communities. Over the course of 18 months they spoke with more than 1,800 private, public, and nonprofit stakeholders about issues and potential solutions.

Prior to departure, however, TOTA recognized a flaw in their membership-based model: with a $500 membership fee per business, only half of their 200-300 members actually engaged with products and services; the rest just paid into the system because they felt obliged. Meanwhile, countless other tourism stakeholders were neither members nor adequately represented. In an effort to build trust with the local communities prior to embarking on their strategy-planning road trip, TOTA broke the barriers to entry and eliminated their membership model. Today, 4,500 representatives participate in their free, stakeholder-based model.


Locals Demand Sustainability

In terms of sustainability, TOTA has identified this growing issue and stressed that they will only succeed at being a responsible and sustainable if they work cohesively and share best practices. In fact, while collecting information to develop their 10-year strategy, it was one local community, who, upon witnessing bad tourist behaviour, demanded that sustainability be interwoven throughout TOTA’s entire strategy. While they wanted to see tourism grow, they also wanted to ensure the development would not be just more summer sun and fun—“tourism for tourism’s sake.” As a TOTA representative explains, “The communities wanted to see the visitor economy grow with guests who shared our values and appreciated our environment, history, and culture.”

Universal Endorsement

In order to have legitimacy and buy-in from local communities, TOTA decided they needed an official endorsement process. Some cities, including the two biggest, were skeptical of TOTA’s plan. In order to get those already vibrant subregional programs on board, TOTA key message, both then and now, is that “the competition is not in the room or even down the highway,” recognizing that the region is competing globally, and as such, they must work together to not only market, but manage the region. 

Greenwood, B.C. Photo: Allen Jones/TOTA

For six months, TOTA had to compromise and realize the needs and wants for every community. It was the first time such a strategic commitment had been made in Canada and was formally endorsed by all the region’s communities, as well as by Destination BC and Destination Canada.

The strategy continues to update and evolve based on feedback. Post-development, TOTA has hosted annual road shows in local communities and subregions to update and inform stakeholders on the plan’s progress. In 2017, TOTA returned to these areas to host formal meetings, in order to review and update the destination development and planning priorities, as well as reconfirm the direction of the Regional Strategy.

Each year, TOTA hosts a half-day session at the Southern Interior Government Association conference update and inform municipal government on the strategy and priorities, as well as ensure ongoing commitment to sustainability practices. For specific Destination Development projects, TOTA will at times employ online surveys, face to face meetings with key stakeholder groups and community leaders, group workshops, and telephone interviews to determine the needs and priorities of both the resident and consumer groups. This is when some local communities raised concerns about tourist behavior and demanded that sustainability be an integral part of the TOTA strategy. 


TOTA, with Destination BC, hosts the Remarkable Experiences Program,  designed to support BC tourism operators in developing and delivering outstanding, visitor-focused experiences while enhancing their digital and social media marketing efforts. The program uses in-class learning, personalized coaching, and access to leading information and resources to provide stakeholders with tools to attract more visitors, deliver exceptional experiences, and gain more recommendations and referrals. Additionally, TOTA has created a strategy for a Rail Trail network to create a sustained economic boost for rural communities.

Photo: Don Weixl/TOTA

Working with Aboriginal Tourism BC, TOTA co-sponsors a dedicated Indigenous Relations Development Specialist who focuses on building trusted and transparent communications with regional indigenous communities. To develop further develop indigenous tourism products, TOTA is committing to implement an authentic Indigenous art distribution program.

In terms of marketing, TOTA deliberately does not offer the typical DMO’s set of consumer resources, instead choosing to keep their main site,, focused sharing their values of regional sustainable tourism and recognizing businesses that promoting responsible travel. Their campaign websites, such as Route 97 encourages further exploration of the region and Hello BC, the provincial site, provides practical information.

Sustainability and Stewardship Programs

In 2017, TOTA successfully became an RTI “Biosphere Certified Destination,”  committed to continuous improvement in combating climate change, protecting the environment, and enhancing cultural, social and economic conditions. (More information on RTI’s Biosphere Tourism.) TOTA is currently working with stakeholders and community organizations to establish collaborative synergies and invite others to adopt a commitment to sustainability. Launched in August 2018, they currently have over 50 committed entities to this “Biosphere Adenesion Proragm.”

Since 2013, TOTA has also been advocating the advancement of indigenous tourism, co-hosting and sponsoring the first two national indigenous tourism conferences in Canada, in partnership with Aboriginal Association of BC and Nk’Mip.

TOTA has signed an MOU to undertake the role of Secretariat for the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program, whose mandate is to bring together and support 32 environmental agencies within the region.

Scenic biking. Photo: Allen Jones/TOTA

Managing Tourism Volume

While TOTA claims there is no current concern for overcrowding, they are currently developing a visitor management system to create load capacity indicators. Through community consultation, TOTA intends to identify a maximum social capacity, while  collaborating with environmental organizations to identify a maximum ecosystemic capacity. Recreational sites and trails track data to help them to establish capacity indicators in the future. “There are management plans being developed for several areas, which will include maximum numbers (during visitor events), to determine the maximum carrying capacity of the system for a given time period. Through a BC Parks pilot program there is also a visitor management strategy in development that addresses overcrowding, capacity and redirects from a conservation and cultural/social/environmental and economic perspective.”

Organization Structure and Governance

As a non-profit organization, TOTA functions under an elected Board of Directors comprising of 15 stakeholders, who represent the regional and community tourism industry. A nominating committee develops a slate of individuals to run, and elections take place electronically online to allow for maximum participation. The Board acts on two-year terms, and only half of the board is up for reelections each year. The term limit for a board member is 4 years. The chair, who is elected by the board members, has only a two-year term. After the board’s chair has completed their two-year term limit, the chair must commit to a “past Chair term” of up to 2-years, which assists in succession planning. The board authorizes the CEO, who holds final decision-making authority. The Annual Budget and Business Plan must be developed and approved by both the TOTA Board and the CEO of Destination BC.

The TOTA staff consists of a core team with full-time support, and at times, with additional contractor and grantee support for key initiatives. No one individual is assigned to oversee sustainability, as this idea makes up TOTA’s core strategy. TOTA sees that every initiative taken by the council follows the guidelines of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They have created an interdepartmental committee that includes representatives for all 17 SDGs.

Mission Hills Winery, Kelowna. Photo: Destination B.C./Tanya Geohring


TOTA’s base funding comes from the Destination British Columbia, with whom they have been in a formal funding partnership since 1995. TOTA actively applies for provincial, federal, and corporate grants. In addition, TOTA has formed joint funding partnerships with organizations such as go2HR (tourism human resources) and ITBC (Indigenous Tourism British Columbia) to jointly fund office positions for key projects.

TOTA’s stakeholders provide another source of revenue. Initially, TOTA lost between $100 to 200 thousand when they dropped membership fees and switched to the stakeholder-based model. To offset this loss, TOTA began charging an administrative fee on project and marketing initiatives, along with money raised from training and the RTI Biosphere Adhesion Program. They claim that there is no barrier to accessing the marketing campaign, and the fee is solely for those who buy into the program. After TOTA removed the membership barrier to entry, this administrative fee has actually more than doubled funding.

Measures of success

Guided by their ten-year plan, TOTA prepares an extensive annual business plan and budget. Within this document, TOTA outlines annual performance metrics, including from project implementation, new revenues and investments, and ongoing support of strategies with specific marketing targets and outcomes. In addition, TOTA’s  Biosphere Tourism Certification measures 137 indicators and metrics within the destination each year, with the requirement of continual progress. The indicators address all 17 themes under UN Sustainable Development Goals. As of 2018, TOTA has implemented an 11-question survey of stakeholders to better understand how tourism entities of the region were performing.

My Commentary

TOTA proves that marketing-oriented DMOs can make a successful transition toward not only management, but holistic stewardship of their destinations. They have managed to push the conventional limits of a DMO without any major structural overhauls, but by dedication to creating positive change in their region. It’s rare to hear of a DMO responding to a community-based push for sustainability, let alone making it a requirement and getting all stakeholder approval. The level of on-the-ground local engagement and commitment seems almost unprecedented.

CEO Glenn Mandziuk has clearly been the driving force behind this visionary transition.       While we cannot undervalue his hard-working support system, it is possible that TOTA would not have developed into what it is today without his leadership. While a sole visionary leading-champion can leave long-term sustainability at risk, TOTA does appear to have enough foundation and stability as an organization to stay the course should  changes in leadership occur.

        On the other hand, while TOTA executes loads of community outreach, they still seem closed to allowing nonindustry stewardship representatives on their Board of Directors. While there is logic in restricting the Board to dedicated, industry experts, and while TOTA clearly makes it a point to listen to the needs of the community, holistic governance should invite a variety of local stakeholders into the organizational structure.

Additionally, while TOTA’s corporate website includes thorough information regarding the DMO, the consumer-facing Thompson Okanagan site does not provide visitors with the typical resources to guide their choices of accommodation, attractions, restaurant information as one might see in a typical DMO. The Route 97 website does a little of this, but it does not cover the whole region. While it is commendable for TOTA for proportioning a majority of its funding away from solely marketing, as we see with typical DMOs, we cannot undervalue this necessary aspect to tourism development. Perhaps Destination B.C.’s information is considered thorough enough to suffice.

        Even with our research, still many specific aspects require further investigation.  How much clout does TOTA’s interdepartmental committee on the 17 UN SDGs actually have? Additionally, given the geographic location, extractive industry and land use problems must surely plague some areas within TOTA’s jurisdiction. While it’s confirmed that TOTA has mitigated some impacts of tourism-related land issues, such as ATV traffic on non-motorized vehicle trails, the power that they can play in mitigating external threats remains undetermined.

We welcome your comments on the Thompson-Okanagan region and its stewardship.