Shaping Sustainable Tourism In Monterey County

Jan 24, 2019

Overtourism has impacted places like the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, where Games of Thrones was filmed. But it also pushed that destination to manage the industry more mindfully. Now in Monterey County, there’s also a push to shape the tourism industry in a more sustainable way.

Bixby Bridge has become a must-see spot on the Big Sur coast. Its concrete arches overlook the vast Pacific Ocean. Car commercials are filmed here and the bridge is featured in the opening credits of the popular HBO TV series Big Little Lies. Pictures of Bixby Bridge are all over social media apps like Instagram.

Even on a rainy weekday, dozens of tourists pull over to take selfies. Alejandro Munoz is visiting from Southern California.

“I saw it on Google, looked it up. I saw it on Instagram. I saw it on my cousin's Snapchat. I was like I got to go here,” Munoz says.

Sometimes visitors take risks to get the perfect picture, like getting too close to steep cliffs.

“It's a little muddy right now. So it's a little slippery,” Munoz says.

That kind of behavior worries Butch Kronlund. He’s the Executive Director of the Community Association of Big Sur and has lived in Big Sur for nearly 30 years.

“Big Sur is a wild coast and folks get themselves in trouble all of the time. In the process of trying to get to a secluded location, they end up damaging the very resource that they're there to look at. So that’s also a problem,” says Kronlund.

To improve tourist behavior, a group of Big Sur residents created the “Big Sur Pledge.” It’s posted online at bigsurpledge.org. The goal is to remind people to respect this popular wilderness destination. It asks them to commit to sharing the road, leaving no trace, camping only where allowed. The pledge is modeled after Hawai'i's Pono Pledge.

“A bunch of us in the community got together and said, ‘this is a really great idea, a good way to send a positive message to our visitors.’ And it’s a good reminder for us. Folks in Big Sur travel just like everyone else and I know when I go someplace, I want to be thoughtful,” Kronlund says.

Monterey County officials are also taking steps to protect the gateway to Big Sur, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. County Supervisor Mary Adams, who represents the area, says up to 600,000 people hike at Point Lobos every year. To better manage crowds, a pilot reservation system is scheduled to begin this July.

“If we don't manage how people come in, by limiting the numbers that come in at one time, we're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg because the flora and the fauna even now get abused,” Adams says.

Sustainability is a concept the local hospitality industry is embracing. This month the 2nd Annual Sustainable Hospitality Summit took place in Monterey.

Rob O’Keefe is with the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. He spoke on several panels.

“We're trying to get people here in the off season, when it's not as crowded. And then whether they're coming during the summer or not, we're trying to train them to be smart when they do and be respectful,” O’Keefe says.

The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has a Sustainable Moments campaign. Online, it offers tips for responsible travel. For each community, there are specific do’s and don’ts. In Big Sur, do stay on the path, don’t start fires. There’s also a video series about #travelfails.

Local educators are also working to shape a more sustainable tourism industry.

Dr. John Avella helped revamp the hospitality management program at California State University Monterey Bay. Coming from New York City, Avella says he was amazed by the region’s natural beauty and the locals respect for the environment. So he decided the school’s program would focus specifically on Sustainable Hospitality Management.

“Let's face it, this overtourism thing can be something that just swallows us and we can't let that happen. And that's everybody's job,” Avella says.

Students in the program learn about conserving water and energy and reducing waste in all aspects of the business.  Avella hopes these future hospitality leaders will help make Monterey County a model for sustainable tourism. 

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