In the midst of the current controversy surrounding Off Highway Vehicles (OHV) in Castle Park, there is a case for ecotourism and three points come to mind that would facilitate this development.
The first is that tourism in Alberta is diverse but our primary attraction and brand is adventure and ecotourism. All one needs to do is revisit the Remember to Breathe campaign that uses images of quiet recreation and undamaged landscapes and that becomes abundantly clear. The reality is that our brand consists of non-motorized outdoor recreation and as it turns out that is good business.
In a 2012 document “The Outdoor Recreation Economy: Take it outside for American jobs and a strong economy,” the Outdoor industry Association of America, an organization based on non-motorized outdoor recreation, reports that outdoor recreation accounts for more than 6 million jobs, $650 billion in spending, and almost $40 billion in both federal and regional tax coffers. And when compared to other sectors, it is larger than the auto industry (including parts) pharmaceuticals, gasoline and other fuels and household utilities. Our industry is obviously smaller in scale but not in importance and impact. Ecotourism is not about hippies cooking noodles on the side of the road by their VW van. It brings high yield visitors to Alberta, intent on quality experiences.
Second, in Alberta, we have a shortage of tourism product. That means when we fill up Banff and Jasper with visitors we have mostly maxed out our tourism potential. The Alberta Tourism Strategy (put together by the previous government) calls for expanding our product outside of Banff and Jasper. Castle Park represents a smart way to grow tourism and diversify the economy without compromising the environment for future generations. But we have to be smart about it and that means conserving the natural quality of these places and promoting low-impact recreation.
Third, growing tourism does not mean inviting hordes of tourists to trample the ground and residents’ way of life. In Alberta, we have our own approach to tourism development. Tourism has three functions: to enhance the quality of life of residents, add to the tourism economy and provide what is likely the best way for the region to “tell its story.” Castle Park is in a unique position to deliver on all three especially because we can learn from previous parks and do it right.
A feature of Castle Park and the Eastern Slopes that make it so special is that it affords one of the last places on the planet that is both wild and accessible. You can find wild or accessible but it’s hard to find both in one magical place. There is a place for OHV recreation on public land but it does not support sustainable tourism development. OHV recreation by its nature displaces other forms of recreation. It comes down to a simple question; do we want to maximize the potential of Castle for residents and visitors or offer it to OHV users?
Joe Pavelka is the associate professor of the Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership program at Mount Royal University in Calgary.