Architectural Tactics for Dispersing Tourism: Lessons from Australia’s Great Ocean Road

In the idyllic landscapes along Australia’s famed Great Ocean Road, the economic and social impact of architectural interventions has become a focal point, addressing the dearth of accommodations in the inland regions. The challenge of attracting tourists to these areas while strengthening the local communities unveils compelling success stories in three distinct domains: the towns, the hinterlands, and a thematic trail. Amidst this exploration lies a crucial lesson: the renovation of small town centers and innovative repurposing of buildings can revitalize these regions, preserving their heritage and bolstering local economies. Clara Copiglia tells us more.

[Above: The 12 Apostles sea stack formations, a highlight on the Great Ocean Road, which is visible at top of frame. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]

Inspiration along the Great Ocean Road

Back in September 2018, I embarked on a weekend trip to the renowned Great Ocean Road, a scenic drive along the south coast of Victoria, Australia. Due to our modest budget, my partner and I opted for an overnight stay away from the seashore. As night descended, we journeyed an hour north from the coastline and found the inviting glow of the Mount Noorat Hotel, the sole source of warmth and light in the tranquil rural darkness. We were the only tourists staying in the hotel that night, and during our short visit, we learned from the hotel’s owner that it was the only place left in the area for local inhabitants to meet and for tourists to sleep.

From that day on, I was determined to understand the economic and social impact of places like this hotel. Were there others?

A map of the research area. The red dots represent points of interest for visitors such as hotels, restaurants, lookouts, and recreational areas. [Map courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

The Great Ocean Road is the most visited destination in Victoria. While it attracts around 6 million visitors per year, half of them being day-trippers, the inland region lacks much accommodation for visitors and has been losing population. How could architectural actions increase tourism appeal and strengthen the local community?

At the beginning of 2023, two years after completing my architectural degree, I returned to this area to study renovated buildings located inland that impact visitor numbers. You can download the complete report as a pdf.

Here are examples from the research, focusing on success stories and organized in three parts: The towns, the hinterland, and a thematic trail.

The Inland Towns

As most visitors travel by car or tourist coach, they will likely pass through many regional towns and see their streetscapes, usually composed of storefronts and hotels. Originally, storefronts were food shops, blacksmith shops, bakeries, etc., while hotels provided accommodations for visitors and a pub. Today, many storefronts are abandoned or have been converted into private houses, and many hotels are closed.

In Noorat, I found that the previous owner of the Mount Noorat Hotel had decided to sell during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Blain Family, a couple and their parents, bought the place to save it from closing down or being converted to housing. They took over the hotel while running a dairy business at the same time. The hotel is a place of meeting for the community, where locals and tourists encounter and sometimes gather, during bushfires, a place of refuge.

The historic Mount Noorat Hotel, built in 1909. [Photo courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

The Mount Noorat Hotel had been renovated first by the previous owner, who I met back in 2018. He took off the fake ceiling and repainted the interior, giving it a warm atmosphere. On the second floor, the hotel has a few well-renovated rooms that bring travelers to Noorat who discover the area or visit relatives. Aided by some local-government funding from Corangamite Shire, the Blain family has taken over the renovation and plans an outdoor seating area.

Lesson learned: In small regional communities, there is often a space that can both serve as a gathering place for locals and host visitors. It is essential to identify these types of buildings and care for them. In the case of Noorat, the hotel is kept open thanks to devoted locals and government help.

In other towns in the area, in addition to hotels, these buildings might include converted churches, storefronts, halls, etc. There are many simple ways to upgrade those spaces like adding openings, creating an outdoor covered space, which would transform it into a welcoming place for both community and visitors. Storefront establishments, for instance, can gain appeal by sprucing up the façade and adding skylights or a back terrace.

The Hinterlands

In between the towns inland from the Great Ocean Road, the landscape varies from tropical forest to plains punctuated by extinct volcanoes, lakes, and farms. But relatively few visitors come compared to the seashore.

I found one demonstration project that does bring tourism inland. Innovative accommodations such as tiny houses are a great way to promote these regional areas, as they bring visitors to the doorsteps of the locals wanting their business. Ample, an Australian company specializing in transportable living spaces, was approached by Visit Victoria – the state’s primary tourism and event company – to propose a touristic off-grid tiny house called ‘Stella the Stargazer’.

Stella was moved every eight weeks to different locations in Victoria, including the Great Ocean Road region. The tiny house is placed on farm properties to highlight the natural landscape, and a chef collaborates with locals to provide visitors with food products from the area. The farmers get paid rent and don’t have to manage the bookings.

The remarkable tiny house, ‘Stella the Stargazer’, with its clever design and unique amenities. [Photos courtesy of Brook James and Greta Punch]

Stella was mostly built with reclaimed materials; its truss and cladding come from an old local farm shed that Ample dismantled. Stella is entirely off-grid with solar panels; it can harvest rainwater, and the grey water goes into into holding tanks. Nothing is left on-site.

Lessons learned: Having the tiny house as an accommodation for tourists is a great opportunity for a second revenue stream for locals by bringing visitors to areas outside towns. It offers visitors a chance to stay in a natural landscape while connecting with local residents with products to share.

Thematic Trail

To connect town centers on the coast with businesses in the hinterlands, the ‘Gourmet Trail’ grew from adaptive re-use of an old building.

Two local dairy farmers, Caroline and Tim Marwood, converted an abandonned railway shed in the town of Timboon into a distillery. They created an extension, added large windows and an outdoor seating space.

This new attraction brought many new visitors, and Caroline and Tim opened an Ice Creamery and accommodations in Timboon. They received $200,000 from the Victorian Government to fund the renovation of the Distillery. The Distillery and Ice Creamery generated a visitor hub within the community, encouraging visitors to explore the streets of Timboon. The two establishments have around 70,000 visitors per year and employ between 25 and 30 local people each.

Family-owned Timboon Distillery specializes in single malt whisky. [Photo courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

After the renovation of the railway shed, local producers started formalizing an itinerary between the Distillery and other production places, such as a cheesery and a winery. The idea was to promote each other’s products, make visitors stay longer, and disseminate visitation in the area. The main support for extending visitor reach is a map distributed in visitor centers and all gourmet trail businesses.

Today, the trail is comprised of nine members, located within a radius of 30 km, all producers from the Corangamite Shire. They created a membership system with a monetary contribution to fund the branding, and they meet regularly to enhance the trail and evaluate new memberships.

The businesses in rural areas on the Gourmet Trail repurpose commonly found types of buildings on farms, such as metal sheds, converting them for tourism activity. For example, the latest member of the Gourmet Trail is Keayang Maar Vineyard, located between Cobden and Teerang. The building has one part for storage and another for wine tasting. You can see this dual use in the shape of the building, which shows a large and high space on one side, and the form of the roof adapt its shape to create  a covered outdoor area for visitors.

Lesson learned: The Gourmet trail works well because creative renovation of old buildings combined with local products helps entice tourists to detour inland from the popular Great Ocean Road. Some of these businesses also provide new meeting spaces for locals.

A diagram mapping the buildings in the Hinterlands area and possible renovations. [Photo courtesy of Clara Copiglia]

Conclusion

My research area covered two shires. I found that renovating buildings in small town centers, such as hotels, storefronts, and standalone buildings, is crucial for attracting tourism and combating depopulation. This investment can help create a more vibrant atmosphere, preserve historic landmarks, and boost the local economy.

In the rural hinterlands farmers and entrepreneurs can introduce new buildings, such as tiny houses for tourists, or work with the existing metal shed landscape by introducing new purposes for this common building.

While working on this project, I stayed at the Mount Noorat Hotel – one of the first guests to book a room for a longer stay. While talking with some of the locals in the Hotel’s pub one evening, I heard the rumor that the abandoned butter factory near the center had found a new owner. I wonder what the plan is for this building and if it will bring more visitors to Noorat? Will it serve the community? An opportunity awaits.

To Market Stewardship, Use Local Voices

? Destination Stewardship Report – Vol. 3, No. 1 – Summer 2022 ?

We last visited Sedona, Arizona in our Spring 2021 (Vol. 1, No.4) issue, to report on their plan for getting a handle on overtourism. It’s still a struggle. Here, Holly Prievo of GLP Films describes how a strategic video campaign that enlists local support and participation can shift a DMO from destination promotion to marketing stewardship – a model for any destination.

[Above: GLP’s trailer, “The Soul of Sedona” ]

Video Stories Feature Local People in Bid to Help Overrun Sedona, AZ

How can we widely communicate the need to preserve a remarkable destination suffering from overtourism without drawing more people to it?

In our 2021 work with Sedona, Arizona, that was exactly the question. GLP Films works with destinations to strategize and work toward sustainability goals using storytelling. Sedona, its community rife with resentment and its fragile ecosystem threatened by the feet of millions, was hoping to raise awareness about the consequences of irresponsible tourism through a video campaign deployed in a manner that could educate current visitors without leading to more.

These conflicting concerns make solutions for any single issue difficult, and certainly satisfying all would be a challenge. But it was clear that destination stewardship was needed to improve environmental & social conditions while upholding the local economy that is so heavily dependent upon tourism.

Our Process – The Missing Piece

Pursuing responsible destination management starts with community input. In the case of Sedona, getting the local community on board for any communication plan was imperative, as friction from tourism had made the local community critical of anything resembling marketing. The campaign was contingent upon raising the understanding of the benefits of tourism throughout the local residents, and bringing the community into the conversation to garner a sense of involvement, ownership, and pride for Sedona, not only as a magical landscape but as a destination that upheld environmental standards to protect it.

Sunrise over a Sedona landscape. [Photo courtesy of Jake Belvin]

Sedona was already deploying environmental campaigns to educate visitors and residents alike on environmental stewardship. However, GLP recognized the need for an emotional lift to the messaging. Involving local champions and voices allowed us to tie in the community and provide another perspective to viewers, personalizing the messaging. These authentic voices of local champions would connect viewers with the human side of the destination and elevate the sense of reverence visitors might experience for the landscape, instead of just presenting them with facts and rules.

Pre-Production

In order to find and select champions for the campaign, as well as get buy-in from the community, it was essential that our team made ourselves accessible and open up the lines of communication with the local community. Throughout the pre-production process, we solicited community input. Our scouting trip, community “town hall” meetings, and in-depth interviews with champions and local stakeholders uncovered concerns and informed the direction for the campaign.

Incorporating listening tools helped reduce misconceptions about the project, allowed community members to voice their concerns and have them addressed where possible, and become part of the conversation for a campaign that had everyone’s best interests in mind.

GLP works closely with local organizations like the Sedona Mountain Biking Academy. [Photo courtesy of Rob Holmes]

Post-Production 

Understanding the concerns of the community regarding marketing Sedona further, a Town Hall was held to premier the trailer, The Soul of Sedona, and reiterate the purpose and use of this campaign. Conscious of the community’s trepidation towards the work, we collaborated closely with Visit Sedona to communicate the intentions behind the campaign as well as provide an opportunity for residents to ask questions and voice their concerns. We discussed how the videos were to be used, who the intended audience was, and how it would alleviate strain on the landscape, then opened up the floor for the community members to have an open discussion about their concerns and expectations.

Responsible Deployment

This particular campaign was geared toward marketing stewardship, not the destination. In order to do this, our approach was centered on:

  1. Pulling in voices of the local community, instead of featuring visitors and travelers.
  2. Highlighting the emotional messaging and storytelling to invoke a sense of reverence, respect, and responsibility toward preserving the landscape.
  3. Promoting the campaign on location, specifically on hotel channels, or to those already booked to visit Sedona, instead of on travel platforms where the videos might encourage more bookings and visits.

Throughout our work with Sedona, we discovered that Sedona’s main problem was one of balance: an economy dependent on tourism in contention with an ecosystem compromised by too much of it and a beleaguered local community inconvenienced by it.

By pulling in locals, relying on their voices for an emotional lift for the campaign, and careful placement of the messaging and campaign assets, we were able to balance the varied and somewhat conflicting needs of the destination.

One element that could have made the campaign more successful, we believe, would have been documenting and measuring the sentiment of the community members pre-project to post-project. Although town halls and open communication were prioritized throughout the process, further qualitative analysis through surveys would have been helpful to measure the community’s perception of the campaign before and after, and ultimately, its effect on the local ecosystems and perception of tourism in the region.

Our final product consisted of three videos, two-to-three minutes each, focused on the three key drivers for tourism identified by Visit Sedona – outdoor recreation, spiritual transformation, and the arts.

For any given destination the cost for a video campaign is driven by many variables, starting with the budget of the film partner and then the scope of work, location, deliverables, schedule, and so on. Video is a powerful tool for education and beyond. It’s a medium that allows complex messages to be distilled and delivered compellingly using both audio and visual cues, creating an experience around the message, and showing instead of telling

Palau: A Conservation Culture

The Micronesian nation of Palau has been gaining a reputation not only for trail-blazing conservation measures, reports Tiffany Chan, but also for putting the brakes on irresponsible mass tourism. Now they’ve set their sights on carbon neutrality.

[Above: The Rock Island archipelago, a major tourism draw for Palau. ]

Micronesian Archipelago Leads the Way in Pacific Stewardship

Children of Palau
I take this Pledge
To preserve and protect your beautiful and unique Island home.…
—The Palau Pledge

The tiny island nation of Palau is known worldwide for its marvelous environment – turquoise waters, unexplored lands, biodiversity – and for the innovative regulations that have been implemented to ensure its pristine condition.

This Micronesian country of hundreds of islands, however, has been facing many challenges due to high-volume tourism growth and a dramatic increase in budget-oriented travel. Tourism accounts for approximately 31% of Palau’s GDP, as well as 38% of jobs in Palau’s private sector. In recent (pre-Covid) years, annual visitors to Palau averaged almost seven times greater than the local population. Prior to 2014, higher spending consumers in the diving market fuelled tourism in Palau. Thereafter, a large spike in pre-packaged travel groups from China resulted in lower in-country spending and a shift towards mass-market tourism.

Tourists enjoy the Milky Way, an often crowded mud bath in the Rock Islands.

As identified in the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework 2017-2021 by the Bureau of Tourism, “dramatic increases in visitor arrivals within the past two years and the rapid proliferation of budget-oriented tourism development to service those visitors have led to concerns about devastating consequences on the industry, environment and society.”

A Conservation Leader

Led by a president focused on natural conservation, Palau is on the path to discourage mass tourism and promote destination sustainability, with innovative policies and initiatives, such as:

    • The world’s first shark sanctuary, created in 2009. Given that half of the world’s oceanic sharks are at risk of extinction, this sanctuary protects an area about the size of France where commercial shark fishing is banned.
    • The world’s sixth-largest marine sanctuary, established in 2015 to protect 80% of its maritime territory, meaning no fishing, or other uses such as drilling for oil, in an area of tuna-rich ocean.

      Unique among responsible tourism pledges, the Palau Pledge is the entry visa stamp – and directed to the next generation.

    • Introduction of the “Palau Pledge” in 2017, the world’s first mandatory eco-pledge. This signed promise, stamped in the passport of all incoming visitors, is a pledge to respect the environment and preserve it for the “children of Palau.” The pledge received almost 6000 signatures within the first two weeks.
    • A “reef-toxic” sunscreen ban restricting the manufacturing and import of sunscreen containing toxic chemicals that lead to coral bleaching in 2018, followed by a world-first ban on selling harmful sunscreen products in 2020.
    • Palau joined the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) in 2020 along with 13 other world leaders, in a commitment to sustainably manage 100% of national waters by 2025.

To ensure compliance with environmental responsibility, the Responsible Tourism Education Act was passed in 2018. Apart from endorsing the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework, the Act requires tourism businesses to provide visitors with environmental education, conservation awareness and sustainable options, such as reusable alternatives to disposable plastic cups, straws, and containers.

How did Palau do it?

These conservation efforts and mitigation measures are largely led by Palauans in both the public and private sectors. Various groups outside of the government have pushed for each of these initiatives and made it successful by collaborating with the government to create laws and regulations, along with the assistance of international partners when needed.

According to Ivory Vogt, a Palauan sustainable tourism consultant, “The essence behind our conservation and mitigation policies stem from our traditions and culture. These ideas can be reflected in Palauan words like bul, which means to restrict the use of a natural resource to allow it to regenerate over some time, and mengereomel, meaning to conserve a resource in a way that you replant what you harvest, so you always have a good supply of it.”

The main tourism authorities in Palau are the Palau Visitors Authority and the Bureau of Tourism. The former plays the role of marketing and the latter in regulating the tourism industry. Prior to 2021, the Bureau of Tourism was part of the same Ministry, called the Ministry of Natural Resource, Environment and Tourism.

Aspiring to Become the World’s First Carbon-Neutral Destination

It seems clear that Palau is a pioneer in addressing environmental sustainability and tourism management issues with innovative solutions, and its most recent development is no different. Apart from overtourism, climate change is one of the greatest threats to Palau. With most Palauans residing, working, and producing food in low-lying areas, the global rise in sea level will be devastating for the island state, not to mention tropical cyclones, typhoons, and severe weather patterns posing massive threats to the livelihood of vulnerable communities and ecosystems.

A taro patch, key source for the Palauan diet.

To improve climate resilience, the Bureau of Tourism is collaborating with Sustainable Travel International, Slow Food and the Palau Pledge to make Palau the world’s first carbon-neutral tourism destination. This program is led by the Bureau of Tourism with the assistance of several international partners, such as the TaiwanICDF. By aspiring to be a carbon-neutral tourism destination, Palau will have to market the program to their visitors and encourage them to offset the carbon footprint of their trip.

Building on previous sustainable tourism efforts, the program began in August 2020 with a value-chain analysis, and later data collection from tourism-related businesses and a needs assessment with a small group of local food producers. The goal is to mitigate the tourism-based carbon footprint by promoting local food production along with a carbon management program for travelers. Less reliance on imports and a redirected focus on local food production allow for better food security and local economic opportunities, all while lowering CO2 emissions.

A national dish, demok (taro leaf soup) is favored by visitors.

To compensate for tourism-associated emissions, visitors will have the opportunity to voluntarily calculate and offset the carbon footprint associated with their trip through a digital platform. Using 2019 arrival numbers, a projected $1 million could be generated through the calculator if all visitors offset their trip. The contributions would then be reinvested into conservation projects and certified carbon offset initiatives. Due to COVID-19 and the transition to a new government administration, the Carbon Neutral program is still in progress, with the hopes of the calculator being completed soon.

A Pioneer in Conservation

Within all of Palau’s initiatives, the people and biodiversity of Palau come first. Overtourism has taught Palau the importance of prioritizing high-value tourism. In today’s climate, destinations that once suffered from mass tourism have been given an opportunity to rethink how they will handle the pent-up demand. For the sake of building a more resilient and regenerative tourism economy, COVID-19 recovery plans must not ignore the intersection of climate change and sustainable tourism development. Palau’s latest initiative in carbon neutrality is a destination-level approach that can act as a guiding model for other destinations. Balancing tourism growth with climate action is a difficult feat to accomplish, but with countries like Palau taking the lead on such initiatives, there is hope that other destinations can implement similar initiatives into their climate action strategies, while also fostering sustainable economic growth.

Overtourism’s Lessons for Tomorrow

“In 2019, over 1.5 billion tourists crossed international borders and tourism’s continued growth seemed assured. However, in 2020, tourism stopped in its tracks. The world went from overtourism to no tourism.”
– Kelsey Frenkiel, Program Manager at the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and co-editor of Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future (Island Press). 

Held on June 2nd, 2021, the Overtourism to No Tourism Webinar convened four writers from CREST’s new multi-author book, Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future. Rebecca Clarke reports on the panel’s discussion of why it is necessary to build a sustainable tourism industry, particularly in the post-pandemic period, and how destinations can go about doing so.

Overtourism to No Tourism:
How (and Why) to Build a More Sustainable Tourism Industry 

Four panelists were asked five questions about the current state of the travel industry. Participants included:

  • Martha Honey, Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and co-editor of the book.
  • Jonathan Tourtellot, CEO of the Destination Stewardship Center & former National Geographic Travel Editor.
  • Arnie Weissmann, Editor in Chief at Travel Weekly.
  • Cathy Ritter, Trustee at The Travel Foundation & Former Director or Colorado Tourism Office.

The questions

  • “Why has overtourism become a problem, not just for local residents but also for the quality of visitor experience?”
    Tourtellot said that it’s not just a matter of overcrowding a destination that is the problem, overtourism also destroys natural areas, spoils ancient historical sites, and more. Ritter noted that contrary to popular belief, it does not take that many people to impact a natural area. Both agreed that these are reasons why overtourism must be addressed. Weissmann observed that international travel is accessible to people now more than ever, due to reasons such as rising middle class, low-cost carriers, and social media.
  • “What do you see as some of the top factors contributing to overtourism?”
    Ritter explained that there needs to be a shift in perspectives by industry professionals, which will not be easy. Tourtellot stated that long-term factors include the increase in the world’s population, growing affluence, and various technological advances. Weissman mentioned short-term factors, such as destinations that are having their “moment” in popular media, resulting in overtourism. For example, the Singapore Tourism Board launched a campaign with Warner Brothers to coincide with the release of the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, which led visitors to flock to the country.
  • “Describe the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism in a specific type of destination.”
    Ritter began by using the example of public land visitation in Colorado during the pandemic. It increased by 30% in 2020, as it was clear that people had been seeking release during the pandemic and had turned to public lands for it. Weissmann used the example of Miami Beach, and the herds of tourists that it saw during spring break of March 2021, characterized by epidemiologists as a COVID superspreading event. He added that local government is at least using this as a learning opportunity to market Miami Beach as “not just a party destination”. Tourtellot noted that Mallorca in Spain also used the tourism hiatus during the pandemic to repackage itself as “more than a beach destination”.
  • Describe specific countries that have proposed practical and innovative mitigation strategies to address tourism and the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
    Tourtellot said that the countries around the world that have the most innovative strategies seem to be the ones who were suffering overtourism before the pandemic. Ritter stated that Rocky National Park is a prime example of a place that has implemented an innovative mitigation strategy, having introduced a time entry system that allows people to visit the park only at an assigned time. Additionally, Weissmann noted that the city of Amsterdam used the pandemic hiatus to reinvent their tourism strategy with such initiatives as relocating sex workers to designated prostitution hotels and banning marijuana bars. Their aim is to attract a different kind of tourist to the city.
  • “What are some of the emerging tourism trends coming out of the pandemic?”
    Weissmann stated that technology will continue to advance, citing Buenos Aires as an example of a city using innovative technology to manage overtourism. The city collects visitors’ cell phone numbers and manages congested areas by sending out a text with an incentive that directs tourists to less crowded areas of the city. Ritter explained that countries around the world are beginning to realize that they can no longer rely on the strategies of the past to overcome overtourism. Destinations must find ways to attract tourists who are compatible with destination residents. Tourtellot concluded this section of the webinar by observing that we are going to continue to hear about tighter management of cruise tourism. Cities around the world such as Dubrovnik are limiting the number of cruise ships that can enter their ports. Norway is planning to ban cruise ships from entering fjords if they fail emissions standards, in effect banning all but smaller expedition ships.

Q&A The final 20 minutes of the webinar were allotted to a question-and-answer period for attendees to ask questions such as these:

  • “What is the influence of social media in getting people to go to desired destination and snap that typical-tourist photo while they are there?” Weissmann noted that this, combined with bucket-list travel, has been a significant feeder of concentrating tourism in particular destinations, adding that the rise in tourism from Instagram is mind-boggling. It drives incredible numbers of tourists to a place. Ritter said that Amsterdam recently decided to remove the “I AMsterdam” sign as it drove overtourism. She’s a fan of the photographer’s code of conduct not to tag a location when posting a photo to social media. Tourtellot advised against simply taking photos of yourself when visiting destinations. Instead, he said, turn the camera around and photograph of the place you are visiting. “After all, you’ve paid to get there.”
  • “What are some examples of barriers that countries face when dealing with overtourism?” Ritter stated that some destination leaders find themselves in conflict with their own boards; oftentimes the boards are made up of tourism industry people such as hotel owners who have a vested interest in increasing numbers of visitors. Another barrier is lack of information, Ritter noted, since that is an incredible tool for learning exactly who is visiting, their demography, their reason for visiting. Many destinations lack access to this type of information.
  • “Isn’t it better to let certain places experience overtourism and not let overtourism spread to more rural areas that are not prepared for it?” Tourtellot stated that due to the worldwide use of Instagram and social media, pretty much every place is now known. “It’s our job to educate people on how to handle that.” He used the example of Serbia, where tourists in 2020 began going to rural areas and did not know how to behave when they got there. He mentions the importance of education on how to act when arriving in less-visited places in the world. Tourtellot noted that destination marketing is usually funded by hoteliers and others who count on high tourism numbers, thereby creating a cycle of encouraging overtourism. Rural areas need to rethink this, he said, and there needs to be coordination and collaboration across sectors.

Overall, the webinar was a great success, and attendees left with useful information about the current and future state of the tourism industry and its interaction with destinations.

Readers of the Destination Stewardship Report can purchase the book Overtourism: Lessons for a Better Future from Island Press using the code HONEY for a 20% discount.

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/istockphoto.com

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.

Activities

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.

Additionally:

  • 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.

 Funding

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.”

Appendix
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