Local input sought to help focus the future of island tourism

— Created October 12, 2022 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

No one can predict the future. But with help from Island County residents, Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism is hoping to predict future trends and implement ways to handle future tourism growth in a way that benefits residents, visitors and the environment.

The organization is asking all residents to complete a brief online survey by Oct. 31. There are just 13 questions and the survey may be completed anonymously. Visit whidbeycamanoislands.com/transformational-travel/ to learn more and to take the survey.

“There is a desire to thoughtfully explore ways that tourism can improve the lives of residents, enrich visitors’ experiences, and benefit the natural environment of the islands,” said Sherrye Wyatt, PR and marketing manager for Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism.

“Local input is essential to this process,” she continued. “Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism has enrolled key tourism stakeholders and community members to participate in the Transformational Travel Council’s Regenerative Places Program, so that we may genuinely improve and benefit our community.”

Tourism is big business, even on Whidbey and Camano Islands. The concept of “transformational travel,” according to Wyatt, is purposeful and designed to help people think about travel in a different way.

“According to the Transformational Travel Council, transformational travel is intentionally traveling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world,” she explained. “Traveler spending contributed $283 million to Island County in 2021. That’s pretty significant and should be taken into consideration when imagining what the islands would be without these visitors who currently support thousands of jobs and hundreds of small businesses.”

“Tourism plays a significant role in Island County by providing jobs, improving our local economy, and providing a positive community image, which is critical for economic development,” agreed Sharon Sappington, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Island County.

“If done properly, I see tourism as a future economic growth area,” Sappington continued.  “Tourism has a multiplier effect across economic sectors in Island County, such as food services, accommodations, retail, agriculture, and outdoor activities. Through intentional and thoughtful efforts, such as [what is] currently being done by the Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism group, and [if] sustainably managed, tourism can contribute to economic diversification, enhance local products and culture, promote local businesses and support job creation.”

Of course, with growth comes an increase in the use of basic infrastructure and services. Survey organizers hope input from the public can provide ideas on how to manage an anticipated increase in the number of visitors. One cannot overlook impacts on the environment as well – one of the reasons Whidbey and Camano Island Tourism recently published its new “Field Guide,” which featured trails a little more off the beaten path.

“Directing visitors and residents to explore lesser-known attractions is one way to ensure no part of the islands become over loved,” Wyatt said. “We are in the process of considering developing another field guide in our series, this one to celebrate heritage and culture, including the islands’ indigenous people and historical significance before the arrival of European settlers.”

The islands’ rural character is part of its appeal to visitors. Maintaining that character is  important, as is protecting private property.

“People deserve to access special places like this and it seems like in large part, our communities can accommodate increased numbers if we can better prepare our visitors for their time on the islands,” said Julie Dougherty Winger, director of Friends of Ebey’s Reserve. “A particular challenge for our area is that while many of our challenges are those you see at heavily visited public lands, the majority of our land is private land. It feels like it’s public land to people visiting, but is often land in use by the very industries that are integral to our rural character, such as farming.” 

“In general, the trust board [of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve] is focusing on a more concerted outreach effort about the environmental impact of increased numbers of people walking on nature pathways and, maybe most importantly, an enhanced effort from all partners on emphasizing the privately-owned land on which people should not trespass,” said Marie Shimada, Reserve manager. “We’ve had huge problems this summer with farmland trespass.”

As with any tourist destination, increased traffic is a given. That’s why organizations are already beginning to look at ways to manage the increase.  

“We’ve seen a 33 percent increase just at our office this year with visitors,” Shimada said. “Right now, all of those people are presumptively driving here. We need folks who can help push the need for expanded public transit to cut down on traffic/parking/emissions. My dream world has efficient park and ride use combined with frequent round trip routes that go past all of the trailheads. People could visit Whidbey and never need their vehicle – arrive by train, ferry, and then a free transit system that connects people to lodging AND tourist attractions.” 

“It feels as though anticipated tourism growth is a given,” Dougherty Winger said. “Our proximity to major metropolitan areas and the fact that many visitors come to Island County as a final destination as well as a pass-through on their way to other attractions such as Olympic and North Cascades National Parks, paired with the general increase in population, seems like a recipe for continued increase in tourism.” 

One Whidbey Island business owner said they try to keep their groups small to provide a more personal experience, but they plan to expand in order to accommodate new and returning visitors.

“We are currently investing in more transport and trailers so that visitors can leave their cars on the mainland and be shuttled to their experiences, which will reduce overall traffic but also reduce congestion at beaches and trail heads,” said Krista Loercher, owner of Whidbey Island Kayaking.

“We currently cultivate increased environmental and cultural awareness for visitors through sharing knowledge of our delicate geology and marine ecosystems,” she continued. “We’d like to further this by partnering with other organizations and nonprofits here who also work to protect and restore our ecosystems. This will provide ways for visitors to be a part of the island restoration, such as removing invasive plant species along the shoreline, or helping to maintain existing trail systems.”

“I think there is some component to helping educate visitors that much of our land is rural by design and not simply because we are ‘behind the times’ or whatnot,” said Dougherty Winger. “We do welcome visitors, but the temptation for some visitors to turn into residents may be limited. Our communities can thrive if we focus on full time residents who are the backbone of paid and unpaid labor and the industries that maintain our rural character.”

All those interested are encouraged to take the survey at whidbeycamanoislands.com/transformational-travel/. The survey will be available through Oct. 31.