Leaving unsustainable tourism behind | Life on the Rocks

Submitted by Steve Ulvi

Lately, I have been reminded that there are few more important, thankless jobs, than those in public planning. Especially so in this conflicted little place that struggles to find a modern identity while carelessly serving as an entertainment getaway for the fickle, harried and ever-growing urban swarm from Pugetopolis.

Public planners must be good at teasing apart conflicting uses and incongruent values with solutions in mind. Unfortunately, the over-baked Comprehensive Plan devolved into a case of paralysis by analysis and seeking perfection in an imperfect world. Worse yet, planning decisions for the public good are getting more arduous; it’s as if the chess pieces move in their usual ways but the chessboard changes and no longer has a straight line anywhere. Planners cover all bases by throwing in everything including the kitchen sink.

Now, we have the draft Destination Management Plan. The title was necessarily changed from managing “tourism” to managing the “destination,” as a blatant admission that there are very few tools by which to effectively regulate free-range tourism. Our summer tourism defines capitalism run amok. Lodging tax monies are spent to promote, while there is barely a nod to many unpleasant ramifications for taxpaying residents who rejigger their lives every summer.

The draft is thick, larded with academic jargon and pitches a bucket of ideas – some new, some hifalutin – against the wall to see what sticks. Consultation involved expensive contracts for surveys and a final analysis based upon ideas lifted from three dissimilar communities that suffer tourist infestations every summer. Inexplicably, consultants and county staff never considered Salt Spring Island, our near-doppelganger neighbor island up the way, eh?

Reduced vehicle speed on narrow roads is a win-win. Is a strictly enforced 35 mph limit on more island roads really a hardship for locals? Rustic camping opportunities are sorely needed. The National Historic Park claims to attract 250,000 visitors but has no campsites for an immersive outdoor experience.

There is predictable blowback about the idea of across-the-board permits for vehicles, bikes and boats to create some revenue and quantifiable data from the mess we live with every summer. I am good with all visitors (including your cousins from Kokomo) paying to play here, but not year-round residents. All bicycle use should be incentivized, not penalized. The implied vehicle permit system would be a nightmare.

It is good to see wider public interest in this plan. Apathy is a real problem on San Juan Island. It will be interesting to compare the comments of other county departments, the Port, non-profits and tribes. But as important as visitation is, this plan should be short-term, a part of a much more important community reboot on SJI. The main emphasis ought to be on specific, achievable actions that are in harmony with an intentional transition to a healthy, diversified island economy – reducing dependence on volatile “hollow dollar” tourism – thus creating year-round jobs and recirculating island money to achieve greater community self-reliance as climate change destabilizes everything. In the chaotic near- future, tourism will shrivel.