Born from an idea that corralled local businesses to embrace energy-saving strategies, the resort-anchored Town of Vail trying to become the continent’s first sustainable tourist destination certified through the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
So, first, what is “sustainable tourism?”
“It’s tourism that is compatible with the community,” said Magdalena Muir, a Canadian professor of energy science and an auditor with Green Destinations. She spent a week measuring Vail’s progress toward involving uniting locals and guests in efforts to build a vibrant economy anchored in a healthy ecology.
Many communities have tourism imposed on them, especially in purpose-built resorts like many Colorado high-country destinations, and that can lead to an us-versus-them mentality pitting locals against visitors. Engaging the community in the mission of driving tourism can help reduce that friction, Muir said.
“The whole point of this designation is to find the synergy between the community and tourism,” Muir said. “If the community is involved, you are not as likely to have a development override their interests. Events are scheduled when they work best, and maybe tourism revenue is used to build trails or recreational amenities local residents also use.”
Sustainable is the hot new buzzword in tourism circles — especially as hosting visitors becomes a roaring economic engine of many rural and urban economies while locals desperately fight to protect the resources and appeal that draw the outsiders.
Vail can get busy. The town of 5,500 people hosts as many as 2.8 million visitors a year.
And while entertaining guests is the backbone of Colorado’s mountain communities, aligning the swelling hordes of visitors with local values has become the new mission.
The sustainability effort in Vail was born in 2013, as the valley prepared for the 2015 Alpine World Ski Championships. The first phase was enrolling local businesses in Sustainable Travel International’s “Actively Green” program. That program now counts more than 50 Vail businesses that are embracing sustainable business practices.
East West Partners has certified all seven of the Vail Valley properties it manages, including the Westin Riverfront Resort in Avon, a 232-room luxury hotel where more than 100 environmental initiatives have been launched, including an 18-bed community garden for employees.
“These certifications hold us accountable. It’s really about practicing what you preach,” said East West’s Derek Schmidt at a meeting with Muir, who was eager to hear about efforts to engage community, employees and guests in environmental goals.
Other business owners offered their work: Vail Valley Anglers launched bike-to-the-river fishing trips and encourages guests to bring their own water bottles. American Plumbing, Heating and Solar Inc. now sends three times more waste to recycling bins than the landfill. A short-term rental company switched all the light bulbs in its rental homes over to LED.
“It’s really brought a different level of awareness of what we could be doing and should be doing and how much is in our control,” said West Vail Liquor Mart co-owner Laurie Mullen, who installed energy-efficient cooling and lighting equipment to shave her utility bill by half. “We’ve found that so many sustainability strategies are within our control.”
Muir measured Vail’s sustainability potential against 44 criteria. That includes tourism management, resource protection like open space and parks, asset protection, like Vail Resort’s Epic Promise, that delivers funds for conservation, interpretive sites for visitors, transportation infrastructure such as employee buses and bike lanes, wildlife protection, climate-change adaptation, recycling and energy-saving programs, affordable housing, employment and a general culture of sustainability.
The town delivered more than 260 documents to Muir to support the case for certification. She was busy, spending more than 12 hours a day in meetings with major businesses like Vail Resorts and smaller operations.
“The network we have built is incredible and I’m inspired by what everyone is doing,” said Kim Langmaid, who serves on the Vail Town Council and is vice president of the Walking Mountain Science Center, where she heads up sustainability and stewardship programs. “Our hope, if that if this goes well for Vail, maybe a couple other communities will follow and we could do this at the state level.”
The Colorado’s tourism cheerleaders are deep into the sustainability movement.
The state’s new “Field Guide” program offers itineraries that push visitors off the well-worn tourist track with hopes of fueling tourism growth in overlooked corners of Colorado while alleviating pressure in the most popular areas. The state is working with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to develop what would be the center’s first state model for sustainable tourism.
The goal, Colorado Tourism Office chief Cathy Ritter said, is a series of annual initiatives urging visitors to tread lightly and respect Colorado’s natural resources.
“We are making some great strides,” Ritter said. “It’s exciting for Vail and it’s exciting for Colorado. It would be wonderful to have a shining example of how sustainability can be done in our own state.”
The hope at the state level is getting the right people in the right places.That means locals would celebrate their visitors, who would spend their money while embracing Colorado’s natural resource-anchored values.
It’s going to be a team effort, Langmaid said. The White River National Forest, the town, Vail Resorts, the local water district and locals are going to have to join together to make sustainability work, she said.
News last week that Vail Resorts plans to use 100 percent renewable energy, recycle all its waste and offset its forest impacts shows support for the town’s sustainability goals, Langmaid said.
“People are committed and want to be proactive and want to take control of their communities to ensure a sustainable future,” she said.