Reset Tourism Webinar Series – Destination Stewardship

“Good for us, better for all.”  —St. Kitts sustainable tourism slogan

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. That includes the skills, resources, and levers for change needed not only to develop resiliency, but to bolster community wellbeing and each destination’s unique intrinsic appeal.
The Coalition team here presents highlights from the first Webinar, led by two of the six Coalition founding members, the Destination Stewardship Center (DSC) and the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST):

Destination Stewardship and Stakeholder Engagement

This two-hour webinar laid out the case for policymakers to consider as Covid recovery begins: To move from seeing tourism merely as an industry defined by business transactions to seeing it as something more complex, requiring holistic management of the interaction between tourism and the destination. Better destination stewardship – the process of caring for the place and its people – thus requires consideration of all stakeholders, including local residents, to evolve stronger and more resilient destinations.

To discuss real-world approaches for doing just that, a moderated panel hosted representatives from three different types of destinations – St. Kitts, Caribbean; Göteborg, Sweden, and the Columbia Gorge, USA.

Key Takeaways from the webinar

    • Recognize that tourism is not like other industries; it depends on the destination – a place where people live.
    • That reality requires broadening standard ways of measuring tourism success.
    • Success means adding protection and enhancement of destination quality to economic benefits, preferably focused on the destination community.
    • If we see the destination as tourism’s holistic “product”, then it requires a holistic management approach.
    • To acheive that, local public, private, and civil society sectors can collaborate to build a tripartite destination stewardship council or equivalent.
    • Take steps to make it happen: Activate, collect data, mobilize, implement.
    • Make it work by building strong relationships with frequent communication.

View PowerPoint slides by
—   Center for Responsible Travel 
—   Destination Stewardship Center
Watch webinar recording (2 hours)

Here are the webinar high points in more detail. After Samantha Bray of CREST made an introduction to the webinar series, Jonathan Tourtellot of the Destination Stewardship Center gave a keynote presentation that included these elements:

Reframing Tourism – and Why

  • There are two faces of tourism – destructive and constructive. We need to maximize the better side as pandemic recovery begins.
  • First, reframe tourism perceptions, as per the Coalition’s first Guiding Principle, “See the whole picture.”
  • Styles of tourism depend on character of place differently: experiential touring depends on human and physical character of place, rest and recreation needs only physical character, and entertainment-style (manufactured attractions) need no relation at all to identity of place. The first two depend on a destination’s intrinsic character, which is a limited resource. Unlike manufactured attractions, we can’t build more destinations.
  • Most tourism thus is unlike other industries in that its ultimate “product” is the place; tourism businesses facilitate the tourist experience with the place.
  • Second, reframe tourism success: Governments often see tourism as little more than the sum of business transactions, a flawed perspective that ignores other important factors. A perception gap persists whereby the tourism industry is seen as unrelated to the work of destination stewards in matters of culture, preservation, environment, and community well-being.
  • To gauge success, measure what counts, not just what’s easy to count. Totaling tourist arrivals and transactions ignores critical “externalities” – social, aesthetic, natural, spiritual, historic, and other facets of the destination. What’s more, caring for those things can pay off by attracting responsible tourists.
  • Aim for value over volume: Revenue per tourist trumps number of tourists; revenue distribution through the community trumps total revenue; overall enhancement of community well-being trumps revenue alone.
  • For destination resilience, diversify the economy and tourism markets, and build capability to cope with long-term issues such as climate change and the next pandemic.
  • Third, structure holistic management.  A holistic product requires a holistic approach. With tourism, that has not generally been the case. “No one’s in charge” is a common citizen complaint.
  • One model for fixing this is creation of a destination stewardship council or equivalent – a collaboration among public, private and civil society groups. The involvement of the community is key to success. 
  • Based on National Geographic experience, a tripartite destination stewardship council, with roughly equal weight to those three sectors, offers stability to survive changes in government, irresponsible development, and other disruptions.

Tourtellot’s closing warning: Without deliberate action to restructure management, destinations will likely default to the flawed, pre-Covid way of doing things.

Ellen Rugh and Samantha Bray of CREST then presented an overview of how to go about convening and enabling an effective destination stewardship council

Phases of Development – A Roadmap for Stewardship Councils
CREST and the DSC have studied successful stewardship initiatives and have field-tested a model approach based on their research. These four phases should be seen as a guideline to develop the stewardship council, a roadmap where destinations can choose their own route. There is not a set path that fits all.

Activation: Recognize the need; identify strategic timing (such as resident discontent or Covid recovery); form a planning group, and consider a stewardship council model. This process requires a committed leader or leadership team and a supporting group of key stakeholders.

Collect data from stakeholders, including residents and tourists (it is important to ask the right questions) and ultimately hold visioning sessions that include under-represented communities. Such data collection should become a continual cyclical process to inform planning, followed by implementation.

Mobilization Form a destination stewardship council comprising public, private, and civil society sectors; create a consensus mission statement and vision; define metrics of success that move beyond visitor numbers and total revenue; develop shared goals, objectives, and strategy; then plan the activities.

Hold a catalytic event to engage broad interest; establish a council or network structure; make a business plan to keep the council going; raise funds; begin executing activities.

For more information, visit CREST’s blog post on building a destination stewardship council.

Panel Discussion Highlights
Three representatives selected for their exemplary collaborative approach to destination stewardship spoke at a moderated panel:

Representing a regional destination: Emily Reed, Network Director, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, Oregon-Washington, USA

Management model: Partnership-based. Similar to the recommended tripartite model; enables transborder cooperation between states.
Funding: Member organizations chip in for staff.
Notable strategy: Various projects combat overtourism by spreading visitors geographically and seasonally.

Representing a tourism-dependent small island: Diannille Taylor-Williams, Assistant Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, St. Kitts–Nevis, Caribbean

Management model: Sustainable council made of public, private, and civil society sectors.
Funding: Tourism Ministry.
Notable strategy: Provide sustainability training for existing and likely government staff, thus injecting sustainability expertise into government decision making. Ensure that the council is a strategic partner on different initiatives to spread the concept of sustainability among different industries and stakeholders.

Representing a historic city: Katarina Thorstensson, Head of Sustainability & Smart Tourism Strategist, Göteborg & Co, Sweden.

Management model: Traditional DMO that has expanded its role to help develop the city as a sustainable destination.
Funding: Taxes and private support.
Notable context: Citizenry and politicians share a sustainability vision. “We have a good relationship with the politicians on our board. Opposition and incumbents are unified in believing that tourism is a key industry for the city.”

 Common themes emerging from the panel discussion and question-and-answer session:

  • Building strong relationships among destination stakeholders is essential. It builds long-term trust.
  • So does sharing a common vision.
  • Hold regular meetings; communicate what everybody is doing to enhance collaboration.
  • Think about the destination first, as per St. Kitts’s slogan, “Good for us, better for all”
  • Collaborate on ways to spread out tourism impacts, positive or negative.
  • When conflict arises, sit down and have conversations in order to move toward finding solutions.

Panelists considered those points good advice for destinations anywhere.

To continue to dive in to these topics, make sure to sign up for the free quarterly Destination Stewardship Report – a joint project of the Destination Stewardship Center and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

Neolocalism and Tourism

Much tourism depends on distinctive sense of place, but market forces often favour lookalike franchises over more distinctive local businesses. Dr. Christina Cavaliere has co-edited a new multi-author book that makes the case for neolocalism, a movement through which businesses can help destinations retain and deepen their identities, and which also supports Covid recovery. Here, she summarizes the book’s contents.

Neolocalism: A New Way to Enhance Sense of Place

The tourism system relies heavily on sustained biocultural diversity and uniqueness of place. We often travel to experience other places, other cultures, and other ways of knowing. This diversity and uniqueness are at constant risk of extinction from increasing global pressures such as overtourism, inadequate planning, corporate control, economic greed, hegemony, and unequal distribution of power.

During the Covid-19 pandemic many small and medium enterprises have faced challenges with restrictions, closings, and financial hardships. Conversely, many large corporations have been able to remain open, having the financial wherewithal to withstand the downturn. This increases the threats of homogenization and corporate domination as small businesses and communities continue to struggle.

Tourism Thrives on Neolocalism and Biocultural Conservation
The term “neolocalism” was born from the study of place. As related to the tourism system it can be defined as a conscious effort by businesses to foster a sense of place based on attributes of their community. An emphasis on local production, distribution, and consumption can link people to landscapes and contribute to a deeper understanding of sense of place. That in turn supports local enterprises and local identity.

Neolocalism in action: Finn River Cider in Washington state offers both tourists and locals a selection of cider made from  locally grown apples, harvested on sustainably managed land. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Neolocal tourism examples include aspects of festivals, arts, transportation, governance, migration, identity, food, agritourism, and heritage. Dining out, visiting farmers’ markets, sampling breweries and wineries, and participating in agritourism activities can enhance a sense of place and provide enticing narratives that attract tourists. Neolocalism also focuses on consumer promotion of local interests such as the “buy local” movement.

The new book, Neolocalism and Tourism: Understanding a Global Movement, edited by Drs Linda J. Ingram, Susan L. Slocum and Christina T. Cavaliere, presents case studies by international authors that explore neolocalism as related to tourism management. Along with theoretical contributions, definitions, and ideological discussions throughout the book, several authors offer insights regarding tourism and neolocalism with nine case studies from around the world.

> For example, one chapter explores neolocalism as a strategy for addressing tourism issues in rural Iceland in terms of place-making, cultural revitalization, and conservation of local wildlife.
Another case study focuses on Bangkok, Thailand, and examines the relationship between neolocalism and transportation as a conduit for biocultural conservation of the Saen-Sab Khlong, a primary city canal.
New narratives of place relating to neolocalism and heritage-based tourism are the focus of another chapter, including the story of Ned Kelly, a 19th-century Australian bushranger turned outlaw.

Other case-study chapters focus on:

  • The role of social sustainability in the case of Öland’s Harvest Festival in Sweden.
  • Unintended tourism impacts of the TV show “Fixer Upper” on Waco, Texas.
  • Benefits of community festivals in New South Wales, Australia.
  • The role of young Koreans in enhancing urban experiences in São Paulo, Brazil.
  • Food and agritourism as related to neolocalism in the U.S. Intermountain West.

These examples help unpack the various considerations and impacts of linking tourism and neolocalism in different geographical and cultural contexts. They demonstrate how the complexity within neolocalism includes planning, interpretation, implementation, and long-term viability.

By featuring a range of destinations and forms of neolocalism, the case studies can initiate a deeper look at equity and power structures within communities, so as to provide tourism opportunities for local and foreign visitors and, most important, benefits for the hosts.

The Importance of Neolocalism for Destinations
Neolocalism is about both participation in and resistance to the dominant culture. Neolocalism has the potential to appropriate and re-appropriate power, to circumvent top-down governance and corporate interests. It can serve as one way to recalibrate local governance to include equitable and inclusive decision-making from multiple stakeholders. It is also about the possibilities for a new type of “growth” that includes diverse cultures.

A final chapter then looks at governance as related to neolocalism in terms of the guiding the creative process. Effective governance requires input from private and public partners working together to implement the best practices for their unique situations. With discussions about food, beverages, festivals, and shopping, it is easy to dismiss neolocal tourism development as just another fad. Instead, the authors emphasize the need for rigorous policy and planning in neolocal tourism development. That will help avoid overtourism and unsustainable growth while supporting local enterprise and promoting biocultural conservation. Synergies between neolocalism and tourism can improve understanding of the complexities of sustainability through increased community involvement, helping to enhance local autonomy and local sourcing.

The book aims to call us, as a global community, to question more deeply the notions of biocultural conservation, the contentions between localism and globalisation, community-based decision making, entrepreneurship, and approaches to tourism management. We need innovation in economic structures, community resilience, and new approaches to governance – even more so in the post-pandemic recovery.

Boluk, K.A., Cavaliere, C.T., and Duffy, L.N. (2019) A pedagogical framework for the  development of the critical tourism citizen, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 27(7), 865-881.

Cavaliere, C.T. (2017) Foodscapes as alternate ways of knowing: Advancing sustainability and climate consciousness through tactile space, in S.L. Slocum and C. Kline (eds.), Linking Urban and Rural Tourism: Strategies for Sustainability, Oxfordshire: CABI, pp. 49-64.

Ingram, L.J., Slocum, S.L., & Cavaliere, C. T. (Eds.). (2020). Neolocalism and tourism: Understanding a global movement. Goodfellows Publishers. DOI: 10.23912/9781911635604-4287

~  ~  ~

Dr. Christina Cavaliere, an Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, is a conservation social scientist. Her research involves socio-ecological systems including tourism impacts and biocultural conservation. Dr. Cavaliere runs the Tourism and Conservation Lab and has worked with universities, communities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and multilateral institutions on six continents.

Pandemic Tourism Brings Surprises to Serbia

? Destination Stewardship Report – Autumn 2020 ?

With borders closed by Covid this past summer, Serbians accustomed to coastal-resort holidays instead toured inside their own country. Ivana Damnjanović reports on the mixed impact on rural destinations when tourists accustomed to one style of travel must adapt to another. Some lessons for the future.

Domestic Destinations Cope With Profitable, Unpracticed Tourists

By Ivana Damnjanović

“Welcome out here to our contamination zone,” my hosts say, jokingly alluding to the name I attributed to Serbian destinations swarming with tourists in the midst of the new peak of coronavirus. It is almost unimaginable that Divčibare mountain, located just over a 100km southwest of Belgrade, had resembled a ghost place in March and April 2020. The pandemic then brought destinations to the verge of despair all over the world, and Serbia was no exception. Now, with summer almost ending, I watch people queuing for a table in this traditional local restaurant. For the first time ever it occurs to me: What a thin line there is between undertourism and overtourism.

Serbian tourists dine pandemic-style. Photo: Ivana Damnjanović

This unprecedented burst of post-lockdown pent-up need to travel, to move, to change surroundings, to experience, to unwind and forget reassures me once again that this urge is inherent in our species. International visitors have had to stay away, but for Serbia, booming domestic tourism is saving the day, the season, the entire year – in natural and rural regions at least. And I cannot help but wonder: How prepared are we?

Although economically favorable, the situation developing in some rural destinations has been overwhelming – environmentally and socially. New tourism trends have evolved on both the demand and the supply side. Instead of foreign coastal resorts, Serbian beach-lovers are enjoying their own country’s beauty, filling domestic beds and cash registers, but without stopping to adapt their behavior to the domestic context. That’s causing environmental problems, occasional disruption in service provision, and discontent of loyal domestic tourists.

Divčibare Mountain, Western Serbia. Photo: Ivana Damnjanović

The Shiny Side of the Coin

Supply chains have certainly been ready: Accommodation and gastronomy providers, local farmers, grocery and souvenir shops, entertainment and adventure organizers and many more in this intricate network have been eager to jump on the wagon once the domestic restrictions eased. Throughout Serbia, bookings are already made until mid-November, and business owners are happy beyond expectations.

In the strange framework of 2020, tourism has once again showed its beneficial nature. Due to the increased demand, business owners tell me that the season will last longer than usual. In certain rural communities, stakeholders in accommodation and food supply will profit significantly more than previous years. International-travel budgets saved for typical seaside trips in Montenegro, Greece, or Turkey are instead being spent in country. What’s more, these tourists have been prepared to pay more than usual – sometimes double or triple.

Normally outbound Serbian tourists finally have the opportunity to visit all the locations depicted for years on social media by local travel enthusiasts: breathtaking, well-preserved nature, and diverse culture, traditions, and history – Tara National Park, Golubac Fortress on the Danube River, Sokobanja Spa, World Heritage-listed Studenica Monastery, just to name a few from an array of travel opportunities. Many Serbians now recognize that the experiences Serbia provides are comparable to destinations abroad and may even plan their next trip within the country.

Golubac fortress, on the Danube. Photo: Luka Šarac, NTO Serbia archive

The Flip Side

“What about sustainability?” The professor in me pushes the topic with managers of a local hotel and with owners of short-term rentals, some of them my former students. “Wait until we survive the season,” they readily reply, reflecting its economic aspect. I hide my next thought behind the sip of locally produced raspberry juice: Sustainability cannot wait, it either is or isn’t. However, I understand the motive behind their answer. I know they genuinely care about the environment and society of the destinations they operate in, but are still driven by the old normal. Focus on attracting and satisfying demand. Meet standards based on arrivals and revenue.

This coin has its detrimental side. With the exception of certain protected areas, most destinations have been caught off-guard regarding the negative environmental impacts such as littering or overvisitation of fragile ecosystems resulting from the sheer volume of tourists. Those places might be years and budgets away from recovery. Some local communities traded off their secluded, rural lifestyles with their specific customs and traditions for the sudden temporary opportunity to profit, their health included: Tourists brought the virus even to the most remote corners of the country.

Habitual Beachgoers Discover Authentic Countryside Is Not a Resort

My observation and conversations lead me conclude that we are witnesses of emerging tourist segmentation. The larger group is composed of tourists who would typically spend their summer holidays in regional coastal resorts. These coast-lovers are tolerant of crowds, but being compelled to travel within the country resonates with a whiff of resentment. This feeling often manifests itself through unrealistic demands for service providers – a desire for higher service quality and lower prices, even when the value for money spent is fair. Serbia’s diverse inland destinations – mountains, lakes and rivers, thermal springs, villages and towns, historical, archeological and religious sites – call for a more observant type of behavior than that expected at typical coastal resorts. Thus, they may have to withstand overly demanding, sometimes disrespectful tourists, unmindful that a real community is not like staff employed at a resort and expectant that somehow designated people will clean up after them.

The second segment is represented by tourists loyal to domestic destinations or businesses. Their resentment comes from unreciprocated loyalty. The high demand this past summer led to increased prices, all too often not waived even for loyal guests from past years.

Traditional food preparation. Photo: NIRA PRO, NTO Serbia archive.

Those traditional local enthusiasts, who normally travel to enjoy the peace and quiet of countryside locations, are intolerant of the crowds and related behavior, so they often opted to stay home. Others felt it not safe enough to travel, or found increased prices unaffordable.

Lessons Learnt

On my way home I am under the strong impression that these new faces of tourism cannot be overlooked if we are to embark on the new path of a sustainable and regenerative future of tourism. Every country’s experience might help us all understand tourism better through lessons learnt. Those currently on my mind are:

• Tourism needs to find ways to become resilient towards sudden, extreme change in tourism numbers;

• Destination and business management has to rely strongly on sustainability principles with a regenerative approach and promote them throughout the entire network of stakeholders;

• Don’t assume. Closely monitor how tourists and tourism stakeholders change their needs and behavior patterns with changing circumstances – in Serbia’s case, resort-style tourists being compelled to travel domestically and inexperienced local newcomers being brought into the tourism sector (e.g. farmers and property owners);

• While continually monitoring their normal tourism profile, destinations and businesses should keep a constant eye on all tourism segments, since in a heartbeat they can become theirs, invited or not;

• Tourism destinations and businesses should not try to be “all things to all people” but rather be explicit about communicating the specific type of behavior that the welcoming destination is ready to accept.

As an afterthought, what if this season’s unexpected boom in resort-style tourists doesn’t repeat next year? Is it a good or bad thing? The country’s entire tourism industry will need to take time to decide on the answer and then act upon it while there is still time.

After Covid, 10 Ways for Destinations To Manage Tourism Better

? Destination Stewardship Report – Autumn 2020 ?

For destinations, a return to business as it was before Covid-19 will be difficult and often not advisable, yet most destinations seem to be trying to do just that. Florian Kaefer, editor of The Place Brand Observer, presents a new, free, multi-expert white paper offering 10 better ideas. If your community, government, association, or DMO is seeking to do a tourism reset, here’s how to get started.

A White Paper for a More Robust Recovery

At The Place Brand Observer, (in partnership with the Sustainability Leaders Project) we have published a white paper to help you future-proof your destination – city or region. We asked leading consultants, managers and researchers to share their suggestions on how to resume tourism after the pandemic, taking into consideration the challenges and pitfalls that destination managers and marketers will face. The result is our paper, ‘How Can Destinations Resume Tourism After the Pandemic, While Ensuring Sustainability?’

After several months of lockdown, uncertainties, political pressure, economic and social losses – but also inspiring stories of nature renaissance, solidarity and awareness, we have (hopefully) learnt a valuable lesson or two, as human beings.

The travel industry is among the most affected by the pandemic. At the same time, the visitor economy is an essential ingredient for the economic recovery of many destinations. That means much pressure on destination managers and marketers to resume tourist flows as soon as possible, and to get back to business just as it was before Covid-19. However, the expectations and needs of customers and communities may have changed post-pandemic, together with external market conditions and bigger picture concerns such as tourism sustainability and the climate emergency.

‘Never waste a good crisis’ – and indeed, destination managers and developers have an unprecedented opportunity right now to rethink tourism and to come up with ways to make it more sustainable and resilient in the face of future crises. Our white paper presents ten approaches for doing that.

Some of them are strategic, such as elevating sense of place and thinking of the visitor as a temporary citizen. Others are tactical acts such as linking tax incentives and public rescue funds to business sustainability. These all need evaluation by new measures of effectiveness – community ambition, investment, and student attraction among others.

There is always a lot of pressure on destination marketers. Their success and failure are nearly always determined by numbers. If that continues to be the most important aspect of the job of a destination marketer, there’s no chance for sustainability’.         —Todd Babiak, CEO, Brand Tasmania

In a nutshell, destination branding and tourism marketing must be serious about the challenges places will face in opening up again. We need to be accurate, measured, realistic and honest in our assessments of what is safe to do and to offer. And we need to communicate these requirements proactively.

This is the moment where success will depend on courage, and the power of imagination of a ‘different’ destination —one with greater local participation, and a smaller ecological footprint. Have a clear idea of the ‘why’. What do you (your community) want from the visitor economy? Answer this question as detailed as possible — looking beyond outworn (and often untested) assumptions of job creation and income for the host community.

The first step to lasting recovery is to figure out what a community really needs and wants (and what it does not want), from the visitor economy. Once the ‘why’ is clear, you’ll find the ‘how’ and ‘what’ much easier to write down and implement.

With thanks to our expert panel at The Place Brand Observer and the Sustainability Leaders Project for sharing their thoughts, we invite you to download the free white paper here. I hope you find it useful and inspiring! If you have feedback or questions, contact me by email at For more about the panel and expert advice on other ‘hot’ topics linked to destination branding and sustainability, visit

Florian Kaefer, PhD is the founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer and the Sustainability Leaders Project. Based in Switzerland, he has been an observer of destination branding practice and tourism sustainability for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

Doing It Better: Columbia Gorge

As if symbolizing the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, a rainbow bridges the states of Washington and Oregon on each side of the Columbia River.

The Search for Holistic Destination Management In our last DSR issue, we discussed the importance of GSTC Destination 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.” The requirement seems obvious, yet surprisingly few places around the world come even remotely close to meeting it. Below is Jacqueline Harper’s profile of one that does, fourth in a series of such profiles being assembled by the Destination Stewardship Center.

Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance, Oregon and Washington States, USA

The mission of the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance (CGTA) commits to “developing the region as a world-class sustainable tourism economy”. This non-profit organization works both to protect and enhance the scenic, natural, cultural, and recreational resources of the Columbia River Gorge and to highlight lesser-known local communities.

The Columbia River Gorge became a National Scenic Area when President Ronald Reagan signed an Act on November 17, 1986. The Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association (CRVGA) was founded in 1990 as a bi-state initiative to promote the gorge to the tourism industry. Thanks to the Gorge Tourism Studio conducted in 2016, over 250 stakeholders – ranging from public agencies to private enterprise and community leaders to youth – came together to discuss ways the local communities could be economically stimulated through sustainable tourism while at the same time protecting the local environment. Thus, the CRVGA grew into the CGTA.

The Gorge Tourism Studio is a program developed by Travel Oregon that addresses and collaboratively solves critical issues in the region such as balancing economic benefits of tourism with preserving quality of life, natural resources, and cultural resources.

Bridge of The Gods at Cascade Locks, Columbia Gorge. Photo: Richard Hallman

Geographic description

The CGTA is exemplary as it brings together a bi-state area, representing both Oregon and Washington. The Columbia River, the basis for the Scenic Area, forms a natural state border between Oregon and Washington State. The CGTA includes the National Scenic Area (see map below), reaching from the Sandy River to the Deschutes River (both on the South side of the river) and from Mt. Adams (WA) to Mt. Hood (OR). It is the largest National Scenic Area in the United States. Not only does it cover two states, but it also brings together six counties, and 15 towns, encompassing over 292,500 acres. The Gorge canyon at its core consists of both rain forest and desert. The canyon is 80 miles long and up to 4,000 feet deep. Many visitors travel here for a world-class adventure experience as this region has many scenic trails, rivers, cascades, and mountains. This destination is sought after by windsurfers, kiteboarders, and sailors for the “nuclear winds” created as the rainforest transitions into the desert, according to the CGTA.

Credit: Travel Oregon, Columbia River Gorge Tourism Studio Program Summary (August 2017)


To the CGTA, sustainability is about optimizing positive impacts of the visitor economy while protecting the land. “Tourism is a sustainable economic driver to protect these [natural] areas and respect them,” says Emily Reed, Network Director of the CGTA.

The Gorge Tourism Studio had another legacy; the event brought stakeholders together where they created a vision to shape the region over 15 years. By 2031, as a part of the 15-Year Vision for Sustainable Tourism, the CGTA wants to achieve objectives in the following areas: transportation, culinary/agriculture, culture, seasonality/congestion, and balance. For transportation, the region would like to be connected by a transportation system that allows visitors to come travel and explore the region without needing a car. In terms of agriculture, they want visitors and locals to eat what is grown and produced in the area in addition to alleviating hunger in the region. The CGTA wants to spread the knowledge of the local culture, so tour guides teach about it and food trails of national significance are marked. Another key factor is to make tourist hot-spots less congested and spread the benefits to less popular areas of the region and times of year. Finally, the CTGA wants to create a visitor experience that balances protecting the local communities, culture, and natural environment.

Under the CGTA’s Statement of Intent, their strategies for being a sustainable world-class destination are to:

  • Spread the seasonality of visitation
  • Reduce congestion during peak seasons and in high-use areas
  • Spread the benefit and increase the economic impact of tourism throughout the entire gorge
  • Respectfully and authentically integrate cultural heritage into the visitor experience
  • Connect resources to optimize destination marketing
  • Capitalize upon the visionary projects underway in the Gorge to ensure this place remains a world-class destination

While the 15-Year Vision does not specifically mention enhancing the environment, Emily Reed, explains that the National Scenic Area defines everything the CGTA does. Tourism protects the natural area as it generates an economic benefit, showing that if tourism is managed correctly, it is a sustainable economic driver.

Organizational Structure and Governance

The CGTA is a network of diverse businesses and organizations. It consists of a Board and a Core Team (see the network diagram below). The Board typically has nine voting members and four non-voting advisors. The Core Team is chosen by the Board and is made up of three to five people, representing both Oregon and Washington, and has decision making power. At the center of everything is the Network Director. The Network Director convenes the network and supports the Action Teams under Board oversight.

Courtesy, the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance

The six different Action Teams have self-appointed leadership. To become a part of this project or get involved, network participants self-select themselves, based on expertise, interest, and capacity. The Marketing and Communication Action Team communicates about projects aimed at achieving the purpose of the network. The Car-Free Visitor Transportation Action Team is working on visitors traveling in the region without the need for a car. The Culture Action Team is focused on highlighting the history and unique stories of the Gorge and surrounding region. The other three Action Teams are culinary and agritourism, outdoor recreation, and workforce.

There are over 80 active and/or engaged participants. Active Partners collaborate and carry out the purpose of the network. Active Partners meet quarterly with the network to focus on tourism on both sides of the river. You can become a partner/renew your partnership by filling in a form and investing financial resources into the CGTA. Most Active Partners are also involved in Action Teams. Engaged Participants (businesses and individuals) take part in larger events and help with projects. A newsletter and social media keep the public up to date on projects.

Due to the geographical reach of the CGTA, coordination with the local and regional Destination Marketing Organizations is critical, and they are participants and partners in the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance.


Network participants have direct responsibility for protecting and sustaining the character of the Columbia River Gorge. The collaborative work aims to share the cultural and natural history of the Gorge with visitors and cultivate a sense of stewardship over time. Some of the projects the tourism alliance is working on include We Speak the Gorge, Hear in the Gorge, Ready Set Gorge, East Gorge Food Trail, and Columbia Gorge Car-Free.

We Speak the Gorge is a front-line training program so that workers can increase the awareness of visitor service and resources throughout the Gorge. This program was initiated by the Marketing and Communication Action Team. The goal is to have all front-line staff communicating a consistent message as well as highlighting top spots in each community to visitors. The idea is to serve the customers while growing the sense of community and strengthen bonds with neighbors.

A podcast series, called Hear in the Gorge, was developed by their Cultural Heritage Action Team. It communicates the cultural and natural history of the area while encouraging visitors to encounter the place and its people more thoughtfully, and with greater care. The podcast episodes dig into the stories of a place, listening to the people who know it best. You never quite know what to expect.

Sustainability and Stewardship Programs

The CGTA supports Ready, Set, GOrge, which is an educational initiative that develops messaging and visitor maps to guide sustainable and thoughtful visitation. The website promotes travelers to support the local communities by offering advice on planning your trip, preparing for your trip, and connecting with the community when on your trip. It also promotes tips for traveling with care in nature, such as how to prevent invasive species and leaving no trace.

Another program working to educate hikers is Trail Ambassadors, which places volunteers at popular trailheads in the Gorge. Volunteers engage with visitors around safety, ethical use of public lands, and Leave No Trace practices. They are also trained to help visitors engage with the local community. This program helps keep ecologically sensitive areas from being permanently damaged by tourism pressures.

The East Gorge Food Trail brings local organizations together to enhance and connect culinary and agricultural businesses to showcase the Gorge food system. Developed by the Culinary and Agritourism Action Team, the Food Trail links family-owned farms, farm-to-table experiences, crafted cider, wine, and beer, and everything in between. The trail is open throughout the year and can be toured car-free. The website provides examples of itineraries and outlines the best time of the year to travel for specific produce.

Credit: the East Gorge Food Trail Brochure

Managing Tourism Volume

Although the CGTA is not actively discouraging visitors to overcrowded places, they are promoting visits to lesser-known sites and businesses and making travel accessible by car-free transportation. The organization encourages visitors to well-trafficked areas to come during shoulder season or mid-week. Additionally, the CGTA promotes less frequented businesses and outdoor recreational activities that have capacity available, working alongside tour operators to guide visitors to less congested and lesser know locations and businesses.

To do that, the CGTA works with transit and public agencies to develop transit connectivity and develop car-free transportation options to trailheads and communities within the gorge. The CTGA’s Car-Free Visitor Transportation Action Team manages the Columbia Gorge Car-Free project, comprising a team of transportation professionals from private and public transportation providers, nonprofits, government agencies, and small businesses that offer the best options for exploring the Gorge car-free, whether by bus, foot, or bike. From the Columbia Gorge Express Performance Report Card, the Columbia Gorge Express was able to divert an estimated 20,700 vehicle trips from Multnomah Falls between 2016 to 2019. Columbia Gorge Car-Free also publishes example itineraries for car-free experiences, such as the Tasting Bike Rides of the Eastern Gorge.

Community Engagement

The CGTA works extensively with many different organizations in the area. The network includes, but is not limited to: the US Forest Service; Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation; Oregon and Washington State Parks; planning departments; Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; and cities and counties in this region. The network receives feedback from a diverse range of stakeholders. The Action Groups are designed to respond to this feedback and adapt it into their projects.

Sasquatch attends a CGTA meeting. Photo: Emily Reed, Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance

Tourism is an important economic factor in the region as it has created some 5,000 tourism jobs for the locals. Businesses play an important role in the tourism community. If a small business, nonprofit, agency, residents, or community group from the six involved counties is interested in stewarding sustainable tourism, they are welcome to attend bi-monthly meetings of the network’s active participants. They can also receive CGTA e-newsletters or participate in project teams. The CGTA is beginning to actively engage stakeholders that are not currently involved in the network – emergency services, elected officials, and residents. The tourism alliance deems it is important to engage  perspectives, criticisms, and ideas from these stakeholders to ensure local quality of life is upheld. For stakeholder feedback, the CGTA has quarterly network meetings, where stakeholders attend and ask questions and participate in polls and break-out groups. Surveys are also used to touch base with stakeholders.

The CGTA hosts the Gorge Tourism Summit every two years, which brings together agency staff, small business owners and managers, and nonprofit leaders from across the Gorge to discuss trends, best practices, and network with like-minded businesses and people. The event is geared toward new and current network participants, residents, and industry partners. Along with the Gorge Tourism Summit, the CGTA also promotes events organized and hosted by their network Participants, such as guided hikes, planting native plants, and trivia nights. The CGTA network is keen to expand on organizing events as a way to partner with local and regional associations, organizations, businesses, and agencies.


The CGTA works with a small budget that is acquired from partner contributions, the annual Gorge Tourism Summit, and grant funding. Partnership investments are made by small businesses, nonprofit and destination marketing organization participants, and from cities and counties within the network’s jurisdiction. Typically, funding and resources are more available on the Oregon side of the border, where the Alliance has more community partnerships. Although the budget is small, it has been stable. High priority projects receive funding first. Other projects are allocated funds depending on what remains.

There are three partnership options and the cost of becoming a partner depends on business type, size, and revenue. The Full Partner option has three sub-levels: Private, Non-Profit, and Public Agency. Private Companies have a minimum investment of $250; Non-Profits have a minimum investment of $150, and Public Agencies have dues that range between $500 to $2,000 depending on the number of employees. The Sustaining Partner option requires an investment of $3,000, with the partner eligible to be featured in special promotions. Finally, Contributing Partners invest less than the Full Partner level but are expected to provide additional support for the CGTA. In return, the GCTA connects their partners with resources, helps partners find funding for their projects, and promotes their efforts and projects.

Funding has been impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, but the CGTA is still operating and hosting virtual events and stakeholder meetings during the pandemic.

Measures of success

One important measure to get a full picture of the CGTA’s impact and progress relates to network building. Metrics include the number of participants regularly attending bimonthly meetings, numbers engaged in project teams, and the number of partners contributing financially. A second measure gauges the network’s impact, using metrics that include  local quality of life, participation in public forums, transit ridership numbers, visitor numbers to lesser-known locations, seasonal visitation numbers in all regions, the reach of the podcast and visitor messaging, and social media and web impressions.

Two pieces of advice Emily Reed has for other destinations  are:

  1. Diversity is key. You need to have as many different perspectives at the table as possible.
  2. Have a balance between meeting and doing. People cannot meet just to meet; you will not see progress that way. How fast you go, how much time you put in, and how much feedback you receive will determine your progress.

My commentary

CGTA has been challenged with the big task of working across fragmented geographical jurisdictions. However, with the emergence of this tourism alliance, I believe the effort to align multiple jurisdictions, communities, and DMOs is exactly what was needed for the Columbia River Gorge. By bringing together stakeholders from both sides of the river, it has allowed for management of this National Scenic Area to be a success. Many of the program’s’ websites reference one another to make finding information and resources for visitors to be seamless. It has turned the question from “which organization is responsible for managing which part of the scenic area?” into “how can we collectively make traveling to the Gorge as sustainable as possible?” This collective effort is why the CGTA was chosen as a destination stewardship role model for many other destinations that cross borders or jurisdictions.

The largest concern for the CGTA is distribution of funding for programs and projects across political boundaries. Travel Oregon is well established and has state funding, while the Washington DMO is still in its building stages. It is concerning that more funding and resources are available for projects and stewardship on the Oregon side at risk of neglecting the equally important Washington side. One recommendation may be to partner with businesses that do not have geographical constraints. If the CGTA is not having many partners sign up on the Washington side, they may need to reach out to local businesses that may not be aware of the benefits of joining the CGTA. Having sustainable funding is crucial for continuing the environmental and social progress the CGTA has achieved over the last four years.

The CGTA’s 15-Year Vision for Sustainable Tourism has initiated many great sustainability programs, such as Columbia Gorge Car-Free, Ready Set Gorge, and the East Gorge Food Trail. However, there is little communicated about the five areas of focus that are outlined under the 15-Year Vision. It would be helpful for stakeholders to see specific goals and targets for each area of focus. Moreover, there is no explanation for tracking metrics or progress of the focus areas. For example, it appears that the CGTA values quality of life for the locals, however, there are no publicly communicated metrics for engaging with locals  to ensure that no voice or group is left unheard. Without clear direction, stakeholders are left wondering what exactly the end vision is for 2031 and how the CGTA is staying on track. Additionally, there is no sustainability leader within the CGTA to help ensure the goals and targets are on track across all the areas of focus and Action Teams to achieve the 15-Year Vision.

We welcome your comments on the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance and its stewardship.

Jacqueline Elizabeth Harper is a student at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.