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Banff, Lake Louise Tourism unveils 10-year vision for national park

Plan to focus on sustainability, preservation of nature and Indigenous cultural awareness, among much else.

BANFF – A tourism vision for Banff National Park for the next 10 years looks set to focus on sustainability, preservation of nature, quality of life for residents, a strong economy, transportation and improvements on Indigenous cultural awareness and education.

Banff and Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT), working with the Town of Banff, Parks Canada and an Indigenous working group, completed an engagement process that allowed national park residents, tourism employees, industry partners and visitors to provide feedback on the plan, generating more than 2,000 responses.

Six volunteer working groups, comprising more than 80 community members, generated 560-plus ideas and recommendations, and over 45 one-on-one interviews were conducted with interested and invested members of the community.

“We focused on the fulsome definition of sustainability in this project, thinking about social well-being, economic prosperity, and the protection of nature and environment,” said BLLT president and CEO Leslie Bruce during an open house at Banff Park Lodge Monday (Nov. 21).

The working groups were organized according to key themes including Indigenous tourism; live, work, and community; diversity, equity, and inclusion; future destination brand and values; and sustainability in tourism. Group participants represented industries from across the service sector in tourism, professional organizations, private businesses, not-for-profits, and more.

A steering committee including representatives from BLLT, the Town of Banff, and Parks Canada also oversaw the project.

The engagement process was supported and the research completed by Group NAO, a research and innovation company based in Denmark known for its work on sustainable tourism development, which presented its findings at the event in a pre-recorded video.

According to Group NAO president and CEO Signe Jungersted, who was unable to attend the event in person, the company's findings could be recapped into five high-level conclusions based on what they heard: we love this place; we need to balance growth and well-being; we have ambition to be sustainable leaders and be smart about it; and sustainability is also about people.

At a more granular level, conversations arose around providing authentic Indigenous tourism experiences and increasing representation; affordability and housing; traffic and public transit; and environment.

“Across all the research, the stand out is this appreciation and love of place, and from that, of course, follows a strong sense of need to take care of place,” said Jungersted.

About 92 per cent of residents surveyed said they value living close to nature as an important factor to their quality of life.

Findings reveal the community also widely recognizes the positive impact of tourism on the local economy, including retail and commercial life, and to some extent, social diversity and inclusion.

“But then [we] also see some of the main negative impact issues around traffic and parking; waste and pollution; cost of living; nature, wildlife and safety; as well as the quality of life of locals,” said Jungersted.

About 70 per cent of those asked said tourism creates problems for them in their everyday life at certain times of the year, 18 per cent said they’re experiencing problems all year or most of the year, and 12 per cent experience no problems.

“A lot of those problems centred around traffic and congestion,” said Jungersted. “So, we have a traffic problem, not a people problem.

“Interconnected destinations should be the future and [this] should be a great place not to drive.”

Interconnectivity and transportation became key points of discussion across all working groups, which helped to brainstorm ideas to address the issue specific to their theme. At the tourism master plan event, sun charts were on display to act as graphic visualizations of all the ideas generated by the groups.

One chart was dedicated specifically to transportation, with a large part of its vision limiting access to private vehicles and having the national park and Banff townsite completely car-free.

Some suggestions to meet this vision include limiting and pushing parking further away from traffic choke points, encouraging visitors to park their vehicles and use local public transportation options, and providing free transit; a passenger rail line from Calgary to Banff; and even fully electric automated vehicles to bring people to and from Banff and Calgary.

Another point that stood out across the conversations and research carried out from different perspectives, was the obligation residents feel around conservation.

About 96 per cent of residents said they agree they have a special obligation to protect and preserve surrounding nature and wildlife.

Industry partners and community members surveyed were asked to choose a maximum of three vision statements that best reflect their long-term aspirations for Banff National Park in this area.

“By far, the one that was selected by most [industry partners] – 62 per cent – is a vision to be the world’s leader in sustainable tourism,” said Jungersted.

The highest priority for residents was to better manage the pressures of visitation and peak periods.

Other priorities include educating visitors to be mindful and responsible for nature and culture, protecting the environment, and encouraging visitors to travel by other means than private vehicles.

Investing in the community’s social environment to further support the local economy was also brought into focus as the national park continues to experience labour challenges in tourism and other industries, along with a housing crisis.

About 50 per cent of the national park’s labour force industry said they have no intention of staying in the industry.

Since the completion of the surveys, some new initiatives have been introduced, including a destination labour project between Banff & Lake Louise Hospitality Association, BLLT and others.

“There might be some different responses to this question today,” said Jungersted. “But nonetheless, it really has been a key focus.”

Competitive salaries, healthy work-life balance, availability and affordability of housing were outlined as priorities to those in the tourism workforce. However, many people working in tourism in the national park reported experiencing problems with housing and staff accommodation, and said they were being overworked to the point they cannot enjoy the park.

“There are clear results showing some common challenges with cost of living, affordable housing, traffic and transportation,” said Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno, a member of the steering committee. “As a result, Banff’s strategic plan has four priorities that echoed the findings from this tourism planning research.

“We need a better Banff for residents based on affordability, housing and supportive programs.”

The Indigenous tourism working group, comprised of Alec Carton, a member of Carry the Kettle First Nation in Treaty 4 in Saskatchewan and Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation members Travis Rider and Kirsten Ryder, was last to present at the open house.

Among the group's key focuses is to improve cultural awareness, education, and training, as well as addressing and reducing barriers to Indigenous people working and engaging in tourism.

“We want more representation in all employment sectors, whether it’s tourism or anywhere else,” said Ryder. “I think it’s really ideal to have an Indigenous guide, for example, to tell Indigenous stories.

“But what’s really important is ensuring that those stories are authentic and real and tell us who we are.”

While there is some representation of Indigenous history in Banff National Park, much of it is overlooked and not all of it is correctly represented.

“When you’re hiking up at Lake Louise, all that Indigenous history that is written there is listed as Indigenous history, but that’s actually Stoney history – that’s our history that is written there,” said Rider.

“There are other First Nations that have connections to this area, but there’s nothing for them to tell their history on.”

To facilitate Indigenous communities' participation in the tourism ecosystem, the group said providing dedicated support and services to Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs is necessary.

Housing is another issue that came up in many conversations with people in the Îyârhe Nakoda community. Many of the people that would like to live and work in Banff, in their traditional territory, face the same or worse barriers than others trying to find housing there.

Even more important is the reclamation of traditional spaces and place names that are culturally significant to the Îyârhe Nakoda, as part of taking steps toward Truth and Reconciliation, said Ryder.

Many of the ideas and recommendations to come out of the group’s work revolved around re-establishing Indigenous sovereignty and spaces, where the Îyârhe Nakoda have much greater influence as key consultants in land-use and other decisions made about the park, and dedicated areas to practice ceremonies and tell their history.

“When Indigenous people do come here and visit, not only locally like our own people, we want to be able to go into a space where we feel like it’s ours,” said Ryder. “That space can encompass a lot of things, whether it’s tourism, gathering, hosting training sessions or relationship-building.

“This could also be a place where the people and businesses who want to learn, can come and do that.”

The final tourism master plan document, which will act as a guidepost for tourism in Banff National Park for the next 10 years and beyond, will be published in early 2023. Research reports will also be shared upon publication.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.