- Explores and develops market-based solutions.
Tourism is both the best economic hope for Prince William Sound residents and the greatest threat to the Prince William Sound environment and the quality of life of Prince William Sound communities. Unfortunately, current environmental regulations do not force tourism operators to bear the costs of their use of the Sound environment, and the market does not reward businesses that operate sustainably. The resulting economic imbalance is eroding the environmental health of Prince William Sound and the quality of life of Prince William Sound communities. This project creates a sustainable tourism operator certification and accompanying marketing infrastructure to encourage sustainable tourism and to build a powerful local constituency with a strong economic stake in protecting the Prince William Sound environment. Ultimately, it should be a model for certification nation-wide.
During the last six months, National Wildlife Federation has made substantial progress in its efforts to promote sustainable tourism and make conservation a pocketbook issue in Prince William Sound.
Earlier this year, working in partnership with the nonprofit trade organization, Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association (AWRTA), we finalized a draft application for the state’s first tourism certification program, Adventure Green Alaska (AGA). We then asked 12 tourism companies to test the AGA program by filling out the draft application and submitting written comments and questions. We also gave AWRTA members the opportunity to preview the application and submit comments. We eventually made a number of revisions based upon the input we received and formally launched AGA with a press release on September 9th.
In its final form, AGA is a voluntary program that certifies tourism businesses operating in Alaska that meet specific standards of economic, environmental, and social sustainability. Businesses receiving an AGA certification are publicly recognized as leaders in the industry, giving them a marketing advantage with consumers and creating an incentive for other businesses to improve their operations. The program will be administered by a new nonprofit corporation, Adventure Green Alaska, Inc.
Since announcing the program, we have received several online applications and modest media coverage in state and regional newpapers. NWF and AWRTA staff met for a two-day retreat to begin developing a formal marketing plan. We are also in the process of contracting with an internet consultant to help us create a website for AGA that can be used for marketing and as a way of sharing successful practices and inspiring other businesses to improve their operations. We will make the first round of certification decisions in January 2009. A copy of the AGA application and press release are attached.
Last year, in collaboration with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, NWF proposed developing a world-class, 300-mile marine trail extending from Whittier to Cordova along Prince William Sound's spectacular shoreline. The idea was to connect a series of campsites, rest areas, and safe havens for use by kayakers, sailboats, motorboats, and other independent travelers. The marine trail would build community and visitor support for conservation, create an infrastructure for sustainable tourism, and boost the regional economy.
NWF and its partners have since held a number of community and stakeholder meetings to discuss the proposal. Participants have been largely supportive of the concept, which is viewed as an important step towards diversifying the economy. We have been assisted in these informal scoping meetings by the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) Program. RTCA recently granted our request for a second year of technical assistance.
Last month, the marine trail's prospects became considerably brighter when we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Forest Service, Alaska State Parks, National Park Service, and Prince William Sound Economic Development District. The MOU provides a "cooperative framework for the planning, development, and maintenance" of the marine trail. Among other things, it oulines the goals of the project, the steps we will take to achieve those goals, and the roles of the respective parties. Although the MOU does not create any legal obligations, it is significant because the state and federal agencies can more easily commit funding and staff time to the development of the marine trail. A copy of the MOU is attached.
In April, we completed our Prince William Sound Tourism Economic Indicators report. NWF retained an economist (and former director of the state tourism office) to develop a set of economic indicators that could be used to measure the success of our efforts to develop a sustainable tourism sector in Prince William Sound. Measuring tourism trends is a challenge because tourism is not a distinct industry like mining and finance. It is an amalgam of industries including transportation, accommodations, food and beverage, and recreation and entertainment.
In Prince William Sound, this means there are no direct economic or visitor measures of tourism or the income and employment that are generated by tourism. We therefore collected indicators that indirectly describe these trends. These indicators include overall Alaska visitation numbers; employment in the hospitality and leisure and transportation sectors; local sales, bed, and other special tax revenues; business licenses; population; and transportation numbers. Collectively, these indicators, which can be easily collected on an annual basis, provide measures of the movement of people in and out of the region, as well as the employment and income associated with resident and nonresident travel.
In good news for Prince William Sound, the bed and other special taxes collected between 2000 and 2006 increased by $601,666 (23%). During that same period, total wages in the hospitality and leisure sector increased by $1,553,584 (24%). The communities of Cordova, Valdez, and Whittier all saw an increase in tourism-related business licenses between 2000 and 2006, while license numbers stayed roughly the same in Chenega Bay and Tatitlek.
Unfortunately, not all the economic indicators were positive. Ferry and highway travel to Alaska declined between 2000 and 20076 while cruise ship numbers increased. This is an important trend because ferry and highway travelers tend to stay longer and spend more money in rural communities than other visitors. While the study suggests that the number of ferry and highway travelers continues to increase in Prince William Sound, Alaska's tourism marketing program needs to do a better job attracting independent travelers to the state as a whole. The Prince William Sound Tourism Economic Indicators report and an associated press release are attached to this project report.
Lastly, we are beginning to see dramatic changes in the management approach of the U.S. Forest Service, the principal land manager in the Prince William Sound region. Five years ago, NWF spent hundreds of hours participating in the Chugach National Forest planning process. (The Chugach is the second largest national forest and surrounds much of the Sound.) The final management plan was better as a result of our involvement but we were disturbed by the agency’s philosophy of passively managing the forest for the greatest number of people. This approach seemed inappropriate in the Chugach which, like many public lands, is threatened more by the countless small impacts of its many users than by large commercial developments.
During the last three years, we have encouraged the Forest Service to become a proactive player in the region by promoting sustainable tourism and have worked with the agency on several tourism projects. In particular, we have urged the Forest Service to become a leader in efforts to regulate tourism growth and to set use limits based on recreational carrying capacity. The agency’s role with respect to tourism has gradually evolved. Last December, the Forest Service gave a public presentation describing the “Prince William Sound Framework,” its new initiative for managing recreation and tourism. Notably, the Forest Service has committed to ensuring that recreation and tourism do not harm fragile ecosystems while, at the same time, exploring ways to support sustainable development in the Sound. It has invested $700,000 in data collection alone, making the Prince William Sound Framework one of the most significant federal projects in the region.
The key point here is that the Forest Service has become a willing and energetic partner in promoting smart economic growth that links jobs with a healthy environment. It is often difficult for government land managers to strengthen environmental protections if those protections are perceived as harmful to the social or economic interests of the area’s residents. Sustainable tourism provides a context in which agencies such as the Forest Service can protect natural resources while addressing the social and economic concerns of local communities.
Tourism will be the future driver of the Prince William Sound economy, but the tourism market does not reward sustainable operations. It is our premise that the market does not reward sustainable tourism operators because most travellers lack information from trusted sources about who is operating sustainably. This project attempts to use a market-based solution to overcome that information gap by creating and marketing a sustainable tourism certification to increase demand for certified tourism vendors. The certification should protect Prince William Sound by increasing the number of tourism vendors who operate sustainably and, ultimately, by creating a larger and more economically powerful constituency with an interest in enacting regulations that prevent other operators and industries from unsustainably exploiting the environment.
This project has national implications. Although we are currently piloting this project in Prince William Sound, the eco-certification being created is intended to cover the entire state of Alaska. The certification or a similar model should also be applicable in the rest of the United States. As the certification becomes more prevalent, national conservation groups will be able to use their marketing power to drive consumers to sustainable tourism in increasing numbers, increasing the size of the business niche and increasing the power of an industry with an economic incentive to protect the environment.
This project has relevance beyond the Prince William Sound region. In the coming decades, only climate change will have greater impacts on the nation's public lands than recreation and tourism. NWF will disseminate information on its results and findings at various sustainable tourism conferences, including the annual conferences of The International Ecotourism Society and Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association.
(Check sent: 12/4/2007)