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Whidbey and Camano Islands Are Taking a Residents-First Approach With Their Regenerative Tourism Model

Whidbey and Camano Islands, located north of Seattle, have listened to their residents’ concerns regarding irresponsible tourism practices. Americans flocking to the islands during the pandemic was the last straw for an already strained tourism model, sparking 187 community members to become part of a regenerative tourism program that strives to create an equilibrium between residents and tourists.

More Than a Name Change

With the support of the Transformational Travel Council’s Regenerative Places program, Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism has changed its name to Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands. It’s an entire brand shift, with the goal of reimaging tourism so that tourists help preserve and improve the islands for those who live there.

Tourists playing an active role in maintaining the local cultural heritage, traditions, and environment of the destination they visit is at the heart of regenerative tourism. It’s a two-way street, attracting more mindful tourists who are genuinely interested in learning and preserving a destination while locals get to share the beautiful things about their homeland and generate a sustainable living from it.

Improving Pain Points

A house in Whidbey and Camano Islands.
Photo Credit: Suzi Pratt.

While tourism plays an important role in the lives of many Whidbey and Camano Islands locals, in the past, tourism was taking a negative toll. Some of the tourism-instigated challenges that residents faced included:

  • Lack of affordable housing
  • Inefficient transportation
  • Inadequate staffing levels
  • Socioeconomic imbalances
  • Lack of diversity
  • Imbalance of visitors
  • Environmental strain

In the spring of 2021, Whidbey and Camano Islands launched a regenerative community-based tourism model. It was no small task, involving 24 months of community members participating in workshops, surveys, and other conversations. The goal? To craft and implement a regenerative tourism plan uniquely made for residents of the islands.

Us Versus Them

Before participating in the Regenerative Places program, many community members had a “residents vs. visitors” mentality. But thanks to the program, negative feelings about tourism on Whidbey and Camano Islands have largely dissipated. Residents feel heard. Instead of chasing every tourism dollar they can get, Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands focuses on tourist quality over quantity.

Regenerative tourism is also about offering a richer experience for tourists. “This shift in thinking from ‘how to [sic] we bring people here,’ to ‘who are we and how do we connect with people coming here’ is at the heart of regenerative tourism,” explains Mona Campbell, owner of Canopy Tours Northwest at Kristoferson Farm and member of the Destination Regeneration Steering Committee. “This change in perspective encourages reflection on what it is to be in this beautiful place, what we care about, and how we express that to the people that come here so they can share the interest in nature, art, history, and culture that we value so much.”

Walking the Talk

Farm stand with organic produce.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Stavert.

Embrace Whidbey and Camano Islands is taking the “embrace” in their name seriously; they’re embracing the community, welcoming them to two-way communication workshops, holding office hours, and asking them to be involved in tourist project applications.

The islands’ new regenerative tourism efforts also included publishing two new visitor guides that emphasize eco and community-friendly tourist experiences. An example is their 24 Trails Off the Beaten Path, a series of hiking options that helps reduce overcrowding.

Volunteer-based projects with regenerative tourism in mind are in the works, including beach clean-ups. Furthermore, Whidbey and Camano Islands are focusing on several regenerative Embrace projects. A tourism skills workshop and a Kind Quester Program via Glass Quest are among them.

Keeping Accessibility in Mind

Pier in Whidbey and Camano Islands.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Stavert.

Many of the trails at Whidbey and Camano Islands are suitable for wheelchair users, creating an opportunity for these individuals to access an often inaccessible activity. Many of the islands’ trails have boardwalks, paved trails, and grades suitable for people with mobility challenges.

Whidbey and Camano Islands have a detailed guide on accessible outdoor adventures that wheelchair users can take advantage of. They’ve also compiled two-minute videos of each trail, offering a visual of what visitors can expect.

Tourists new and old to Whidbey and Camano Islands can expect an elevated, more community-focused experience. Should you choose to visit this beautiful part of the Pacific Northwest, be the responsible tourist that community members have worked so hard to attract.

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