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COMMENTARY: Overtourism is crushing us

There is an elephant in the room, and no one dares name it.
The wispy contrail of a flight rises over the Three Sisters in Canmore on Tuesday (Oct. 3). RMO FILE PHOTO

There is an elephant in the room, and no one dares name it. Instead, in the Bow Valley we prefer to talk about traffic congestion, housing scarcity, labour shortages and environmental degradation, as if these are discrete, unrelated problems that each call for a different set of solutions. Our denial of the root cause of all these problems will lead to our demise. We are treating each symptom in isolation, without diagnosing the cancer that is eating away at our very core. 

When it comes to overtourism, we are in good company with many world-class destinations like Barcelona, Venice, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. With a growing world population, an expanding global middle class and cheap airline travel, overtourism is being recognized as a threat to communities around the world.

Overtourism manifests itself in many visible and invisible ways. Crowding, long line ups, traffic congestion, and resident and visitor dissatisfaction are the more visible and palpable manifestations. However, there are impacts that are not so readily apparent: climate change, housing scarcity, lack of adequate health services, inadequate infrastructure, and loss of culture and heritage. 

If we want our tourism industry to be sustainable into the future, we need to rethink the way we do business. We cannot destroy the very thing that makes the Bow Valley an attractive destination. We have to protect and preserve our natural environment and keep alive the magic of our mountains.  

We need to value quality of visitor experience over quantity of visitors. Our communities are constrained by land, infrastructure, ecological carrying capacity and emergency, social and health services. This means we must plan for the optimal visitor volume we can comfortably and safely host for excellent visitor experiences.  

Evidence from multiple sources tell us this optimal visitor volume has been exceeded and needs to be recalibrated. We do not want our destination brand to be associated with congestion, costliness and negative visitor experiences. We will also need to take the long view and make sure how we live today respects the needs and quality of life of generations to come.  

We can start by calling on all levels of government to align their policy to support tourism that has true benefits to locals, our province and our nation without degrading our communities and the natural environment. We can insist government organizations work together, and with businesses and civil society, in a purposeful and coordinated way to set and achieve common goals of nature conservation, climate action, economic prosperity and preservation of cultural heritage.

We can look to places like Bhutan which base their tourism policy on high-value, low-volume tourism and clearly articulate how the tourism industry will benefit their people, protect their cultural treasures and conserve their natural environment for future generations.  

We can ask ourselves what high-value, low-volume tourism looks like for the Bow Valley. How can we attract travelers who share our values of preserving and protecting nature and will leave our place better than they found it? How can we pivot from our high-volume industrial tourism to high-value regenerative tourism?

To do so, we may have to redefine what success looks like. We have to monitor the environmental impacts of tourism on our destinations and adopt sustainability accounting to report not only the revenue generated by tourism but also the true environmental, economic and social costs. This is the only way to reveal the net benefit of tourism. 

High-value refers not to expensive or exclusive destinations but rather the benefit we derive from tourism activity. We need to keep our mountain areas accessible to all Canadians irrespective of socioeconomic status.

To this end, we will need to rethink and reframe our economic model, realizing that endless growth cannot happen within fixed legislative, ecological and social limits and cannot support meaningful climate action. By all measures, the Bow Valley is an economically prosperous place, but wealth and prosperity needs to be better distributed to ensure that residents benefit equitably.

Finally, as travellers ourselves, we don’t want to be the problem in other places. We can book fewer airline flights, use public transit and visit popular destinations during shoulder or low season to ease congestion. We can also choose slow – and less frequent – travel, head to destinations closer to home and explore areas that are less visited but nonetheless special in their own right. 

Other policy solutions include removing subsidies for airline fuel, and limiting access and activities to protect natural and cultural integrity when efforts to smooth tourists out over time and place don’t work. The latter strategy was recently adopted at the Acropolis in Athens, and Moraine Lake closer to home.

The Bow Valley is not the only place to suffer from overtourism, but we can set ourselves apart by how we respond to this challenge. We only have to look at Ankor Wat and Machu Picchu or the Galápagos and the Thai islands to see what horrific cultural and ecological damage results from uncontrolled tourism.

By acknowledging the problem early, working together to innovate solutions and fiercely protecting our natural environment, we can act within a narrow window of opportunity to ensure that generations to come will benefit from the bounty of tourism in our region. 

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit