Managing tourism at core of destination plan controversy - Salish Current
October 29, 2023
Managing tourism at core of destination plan controversy
Nancy DeVaux

Still in draft, the preliminary San Juan County Destination Management Plan became the target of anonymous opposition last week when a postcard was mailed to all county postal patrons urging them to tell the county council to reject the plan. A comment period on the plan ends Tuesday, Oct. 31. (Detail from postcard.)

October 29, 2023
Managing tourism at core of destination plan controversy
Nancy DeVaux

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San Juan County’s Draft Destination Management Plan (DMP) became the target of anonymous opposition from “concerned citizens” last week when a postcard was mailed to all San Juan County postal patrons urging them to tell the county council to reject the plan.

The glossy card says “STOP San Juan Islands Destination Management Plan,” “No Land Grabs for Hiking Trails”, and “No Tax Stamps On Anything That Moves.”

A revenue-producing suggestion for a parking pass stood out as the most controversial of 87 proposed action items suggested as means of managing tourism.

Regional media got word of the proposal for the parking pass, and headlines described a different kind of planning effort altogether. Headlines such as, “Get ready to pay more to visit the San Juan Islands” (MYNorthwest) appeared — as if the proposal were already before the county’s legislative body.

The effort to establish a comprehensive approach to managing tourism shifted to focus on just one suggestion: “San Juan Islands asking public opinion on proposed tourism fee” (KIRO) and “San Juan Islands consider annual tourism fee for residents, visitors” (Seattle Times).

Not so fast

San Juan County’s communication coordinator Erin Wygant said on Thursday that she was not sure where that urgency came from. Wygant said there is “no established timeline for implementation of any of the proposals” nor any funding allocated in the County’s biennial budget for any of the proposals. “We were a little surprised that the focus was just on one suggestion,” she said. 

The postcard estimated a cost of $70,300,000 for the plan, but “it’s unclear where that came from,” Wygant said. [Ed.: Postcard cost reference corrected Nov. 8, 2023.] The cost estimated on page 85 of the draft plan document is $13,000,000 for both infrastructure and administration.

The county has described the revenue-generating proposal of a vehicle/boat/bicycle pass as similar to a Discover Pass: “We are exploring this as one of multiple options to find alternative funding … to address increasing pressure on our public infrastructure and implement necessary management strategies. This concept is suggested for further development and no decisions have been made.” 

The process for developing the plan still has multiple steps to go though before any proposals are put before the county council. Public responses to the draft plan received by the public comment deadline of Oct. 31 will be analyzed, outreach to tribes will take place and more public input and public deliberations will occur, “if any further actions are developed,” Wygant said.

Managing tourism 

Visitor traffic to the San Juan Islands has grown from approximately 17,000 annual visitors in the 1980s to an annualaverage of nearly 700,000 over the past five years, according to data provided by San Juan Islands Visitors’ Bureau visitor analytics and the Washington State Ferries.

“We were a little surprised that the focus was just on one suggestion.”

Negative impacts during peak season visitation, the plan notes, can produce traffic congestion and parking shortages, and a sense of crowding at beaches, boat harbors/moorings, trails and rural roads. The cooperative action component of the DMP proposes 87 actions that could be taken to address each of these impacts, including at specific locations.

Surveys done in 2019 by Confluence Research and Consulting showed that most residents already believe there is too much tourism. Respondents said the San Juan Islands are at (52%) or over (42%) capacity during peak summer season (94% taken together). 

The DMP attempts to bridge the tension between tourist promotion and tourist management. The Visitor’s Bureau is tasked with tourism promotion, and expenditures of lodging tax revenues must generally be used for tourism promotion, acquisition of tourism-related facilities or operation of tourism-related facilities, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center

San Juan County’s Destination Management Plan is managed as a “climate and sustainability” program under the county’s Department of Environmental Stewardship. Its stated intention is to “lighten the footprint of visitors and promote sustainable practices among local businesses.” 

Locals react

Friday Harbor Rant and Rave, a closed Facebook group where locals express opinions, was active with comments on the destination plan during the past few weeks.

Responses to the parking pass included many like Gail Neely’s: “Charging people who already pay registration and taxes in this county to pay another fee to drive a car, ride a bicycle or sail a boat is wrong.”

Karin Roemer-Kleven commented “I’m all for charging tourists but residents that are here full time [and] have a bicycle and a car and a boat should not be charged extra as a resident user over and above they already pay (moorage fees for example).”

“I truly feel that this ‘tax’ is a slap in the face for residents — we have unusually high cost-of-living to begin with,” wrote Marie Johansen. “I am strongly against it. Fine, add the fee for tourists … but leave residents out of it!”

This planning effort has been underway since 2021 and builds upon past work in visitor and tourism planning surveys done in 2016–2020. It is a synthesis of ideas and suggestions to improve tourism management in the San Juans. Community engagement during 2022 included three community meetings that targeted residents, businesses and visitors. 

In spite of these efforts to involve the public, there were reactions such as Patty Ryan Wickman’s: “Sadly, I have spoken to residents this week that hadn’t heard about the plan. Hopefully the mailing will spur more interest into it.”

Tookie Sandwith wrote, “That’s the very problem, nobody knows about this. When they find out, they’re not happy. Everybody needs to be informed to be able to make decisions.” [Ed.: Punctuation added.]

Laura McKee said, “Certainly now would be a good time to have a community planning group to move into the next steps, NOT just commenting on the Engage San Juan website.” 

A letter by Gavin Guard circulating on Facebook is resonating with a number of locals: “I fear that this management plan (along with the proposed trail system) will ultimately contribute to more tourism on an already over-taxed infrastructure system.) The plan seems to prioritize short-term visitors over long-term locals. I think we can all agree that tourism is at the very heart of our economy. But there needs to exist a healthy balance — too little, and our economy suffers, too much and our community turns into another Martha’s Vineyard. If anything, tourism needs to slow down, not ramp up.”

Public comments on the Draft Destination Management Plan will be accepted through Oct. 31. 

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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