Not any more

Alberta ecotourism industry pushes for go-slow approach to popular trend

In Canada on August 16, 2010 at 12:03

It’s a new generation of tourism — where vacationers are choosing more often to row across a pristine lake than spew motorboat exhaust into it, or hike through untouched forest instead of cutting it down to build a fertilized golf course.

Tourism in Alberta has become more about caring for the environment than destroying it in recent years, say government officials as they await an $80,000 report examining the growing trend of ecotourism and where the province should market untapped resources.

But industry advocates, running lodges and bed and breakfasts tucked inside the mountains and alongside bubbling Prairie creeks, are warning about the importance of limiting growth and expansion in order to preserve the environment that makes ecotourism what it is.

Mo Rahemtulla, director of Alberta Tourism’s tourism business development research and investment branch, says ecotourism is becoming a burgeoning lifestyle that can be better marketed by Alberta Tourism, offering vacationers a wider array of choices. "Ecotourism has become very popular. It’s a lifestyle. It’s interactive.

"Tourists are heading to the forest, not just to see it, but to experience a natural environment and get an education at the same time.

"We need to find out more about that, to learn what exactly ecotourists are looking for. What are the latest trends. How do we market them?"

According to the government of Alberta’s request for proposals to retain a consulting firm, it’s clear that growth is a priority.

In the request, the tourism division states that it "wishes to retain a consulting firm to assess the current state of the province’s ecotourism sector, and identify opportunities to facilitate further growth from both a product and development and marketing perspective." Alberta Tourism expects the report to be complete by next month.

But industry advocates, some who have already been offering ecotourism opportunities for years, want to ensure the province won’t put development and mass tourism dollars ahead of environmental protection.

"I’d like this to be genuine, not just a marketing gimmick," says Alan Ernst, owner of Aurum Lodge, an award-winning ecotourism inn just outside Banff, nestled in the front ranges of the Canadian Rockies overlooking Abraham Lake.

Ernst says finding the balance between promoting tourism and respecting the environment can be a challenge.

"Whatever business decisions we make, we consider not just from a financial, investment perspective but also from an environmental perspective. This includes energy and resource conservation measures, pollution prevention, avoiding toxic or allergenic materials and substances, minimizing habitat and wildlife disturbance, offering responsible food and beverage options."

Ernst says the lodge will accept reduced revenue and loss of business opportunity in order to preserve the beauty of the surroundings, the definition of true ecotourism.

Terri Cameron, owner of the Prairie Creek Inn near Rocky Mountain House, agrees wholeheartedly, arguing it’s often critical to say no to expansion or larger business opportunities in order to maintain the integrity of her property.

"We get a lot of couples out here, just wanting a romantic getaway.

"But then we’ll get requests for weddings, and that just brings in too many people, vehicles and it’s too much of an impact. It’s a drain on the property, and we have to say no.

"In terms of ecotourism, you don’t want to go big."

Chris Williams, owner of Mount Engadine Lodge near Canmore, agrees that in order to ensure the ecotourism opportunity is pure, growth must be limited.

"Ecotourism isn’t just about going out and hiking. It’s about finding ways to have the least impact possible on the environment around you."

Williams explains that at Mount Engadine, much of the energy comes from battery-operated generators, propane is used for heat and cooking, and nine different recycling bins are available at the property.

But one of the most vital elements of preserving the ecotourism experience, industry experts add, is ensuring that further recreational development is controlled and limited.

"The province has to protect more areas, make more parks, don’t allow so much industry," argues Ernst, explaining that too much clear-cutting, development and use of all-terrain vehicles continue to be a problem.

"They have to protect the wildlife. It’s rapidly dwindling, much of it due to human encroachment."

Erin Larson, spokeswoman for Alberta Tourism, says the province is in fact looking to reduce development and ecological footprints as part of the land-use framework consultation process, connecting with stakeholders across the province.

About one year into its process, Alberta Tourism has started consultation in two parts of the province, the Lower Athabasca region in the northeast and the South Saskatchewan region, which includes the Calgary area.

Last June, the South Saskatchewan regional advisory council was told it has until December to provide advice on how the government might meet the needs of a growing population, competing land use and conservation in southern Alberta.

Larson expects the entire land-use framework process to take several years, but added that any controversial development proposals brought forward for sensitive areas will be delayed until the framework is complete.

"If there are development proposals out there (in sensitive areas), we will wait until the framework runs its course before approving anything."

The land-use framework is part of Alberta’s Plan for Parks, a 10-year effort started in April 2009 meant to balance wilderness conservation with recreation by continuing to consult with citizens on parks management.

eferguson@theherald.canwest.com

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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