The Oregon Coast Visitors Association's push to tackle climate is encouraging news for the U.S. travel industry, starting with hiring a Ph.D. climate consultant. Figuring out what works for each destination is a complex undertaking but every minute counts to mitigate the climate's impact on tourism. The clock is ticking.
As surprising as it might seem, a U.S. destination management organization stepping up to tackle climate action head on remains a novelty in the travel industry, despite America ranking among the world’s top three biggest carbon polluters.
But that’s what the Oregon Coast Visitors Association (OCVA) is doing, one of seven destination marketing groups for Oregon — it’s placing climate change front and center on its agenda, pushed in part by the return of wildfires to Oregon’s coastline, followed by a global pandemic, supply chain disruptions and record crowds heading to its great outdoors.
A signatory of the Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency initiative and thereafter the Glasgow Declaration, OCVA is now blazing a path from which other U.S. tourism offices could learn, as climate continues to disrupt America’s travel industry, not to mention an ongoing pandemic.
“The more conversations we had, once you have that lens of thinking about climate change and climate action, we realized that actually the Oregon Coast has already been doing this — just not in tourism,” said Arica Sears, deputy director of Oregon Coast Visitors Association, who gave examples of the Oregon’s oyster, crab and dairy industries.
The destination marketing group’s journey to figuring out climate action from a tourism perspective has taken it on a path of collaboration and innovation — including hiring its first-ever climate scientist.
“It was incredibly overwhelming to go from zero to what is this action plan,” said Patty Martin, a science consultant with OCVA, whose holds a Ph.D. in immunology and transitioned into climate science work.
Martin said that one of the major problems has been the limited education around what climate solutions are. Most people’s default revolves around plastic being bad and not about decarbonizing transportation and what that means for example, Martin said. “It’s like a puzzle that’s actually solvable — that’s been one of my joys of doing this plan is like, let me use logic and reasoning and science-based solutions to figure out how people should approach doing this.”
The biggest lesson to come out of this process: showing that destination management organizations have a role in climate action even if there is little knowledge and resistance at the start about what that means.
“We really brought the conversation around what is the role of tourism and climate change, why are we not talking about it?” said Sears. “I can’t say that we are exactly the reason why, but Travel Oregon is our state DMO and they just came out with their 10-year draft transformational strategy and climate change is called out in it, they want to determine the carbon footprint of tourism.”
In spite of organizational board changes, OCVA’s climate work in shaping an action plan has continued since launching eight months ago and is on track to being filed per the Glasgow Declaration’s one-year deadline.
For Martin, it all boils down to thinking about the area of influence the destination marketing organization has with its stakeholders and what the destination marketing organization already provides people.
“Whether it’s marketing or education or maybe it’s a need assessment or impact report, that type of thing,” said Martin. “This could go from educating visitors about what it means when they come to a certain location, or educating a restaurant about how to properly talk to their consumers about why they’re choosing climate friendliness, and providing support that way.”
It’s about doing the work but through a lens of climate solutions, Martin added.
Measuring Footprint: A Wild Goose Chase
The Glasgow Declaration’s first recommended step in crafting an action plan is to measure tourism’s footprint. But the Oregon Coast marketing organization’s climate team quickly realized it was a difficult one to start the process with.
“It took me a while to shift and be like, this is an ongoing discussion and thought process, I’m gonna move on to some of the others and think about that,” said Martin. “There’s a way to model what the tourism footprint could be in Oregon, but the way emissions are reported and calculated, there’s no way to actually discover what that tourism footprint is accurately based off of current emissions. You just have to make a ton of assumptions and projections.”
OCVA then decided to try to reach out to businesses to see if they’d measure their footprint — an idea that Oregon Visitors Coastline Association’s Sears said was almost worse.
“Most of the Oregon coast is quite rural; I tend to work with business owners to get them to optimize that Facebook and let’s update your website and it’s a struggle because they’re mom and pop businesses. So to also be like yeah, so can you calculate your carbon footprint? It’s worse than doing your taxes,” said Sears.
Scaling this approach would be impossible, Sears added.
For Martin, the destination marketing group’s climate scientist, it felt like it was a wild goose chase to try to figure this out when an organization higher up could more easily approach it.
“And so one of the discussions that we had was okay, maybe this is something we really advocate for and create conversations that way and really fulfill collaboration in this,” said Martin. “A DMO (destination marketing organization) on the coast shouldn’t be figuring out how to calculate tourism emissions for the state of Oregon, the responsibility felt unbalanced in that way.”
Sears agreed, noting that measuring a destination’s tourism’s footprint will be one of the biggest challenges for destination marketers.
“We’re a region so we have 363 miles of Oregon coastline, we have seven different counties, over 30 different cities, we have unincorporated areas — so there’s quite a large region to be able to go in and identify like, here’s like the carbon footprint in each community, and that’s what equals up to the Oregon coast,” said Sears.
No Need to Reinvent the Wheel
What became clear to OCVA after attempting to tackle carbon emissions measurement: climate action requires collaboration with the state’s multiple agencies that were already tackling the issue.
Being a progressive state also helps, of course. Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed an executive order on March 10, 2020, which requires multiple state agencies to have a plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This led Coastal Oregon’s marketing organization to hold up to 20 interviews with agencies ranging from the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation to understand what their climate efforts and how the destination marketing organization could tap into those.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we have limited resources,” said Sears. “So what are you already doing at a state level that we could just click into? What lessons can we learn from those conversations?”
The state of Oregon also benefits from a climate science office, Sears added.
Martin agreed that if she could have done it over, this would have been the destination’s step one in starting the climate action plan and process and learning how to communicate with the tourism industry’s players in addressing resistance and hurdles.
Early Impacts of Climate Action
On the heels of a two-year global pandemic that has put in question tourism’s relevancy and role as an industry, the question of how destination marketing organizations can reposition themselves to remain relevant continues.
How can destination marketers play a central role in what’s happening in their destinations in a way that speaks to current challenges? For Oregon’s coastline, tackling climate change has helped shed light on the latter.
For example, visitors see fresh seafood from local restaurants on the Oregon coastline as being part of the destination’s experience, but they were getting seafood from Washington and Alaska instead.
“Our executive director just secured a $730,000 federal grant to work on seafood infrastructure,” said Sears. The grant aims to find ways to support the local seafood industry, local fishermen and processors, and see how the coastline can strengthen the local supply chain as a way of maintaining the destination’s appeal as a seafood destination.
“If visitor spending and related economic development doesn’t support our residents and create resilient food systems even under distressing economic conditions, then what is the point of it,” said Marcus Hinz, executive director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, in a release announcing the grant.
“That grant has had a huge impact as far as tourism being a part of this conversation,” said OCVA’s Sears. “And the solutions from this grant will also help our carbon footprint of our food systems and help make us more resilient in the face of natural disasters and pandemics like Covid-19.”
The Momentum Is Here
The biggest long-term challenge for the Oregon Coast’s regional destination marketing group will be finding a way to have its 10-year climate action plan live on and progress regardless of whether there’s a change in staffing.
But the fact that there’s a momentum now across the industry and beyond it makes all the difference.
“Opinions around climate change and tourism in general have shifted,” said OCVA’s climate scientist Martin. “There seems to be more I would say there’s more excitement and a better understanding that this is where the future is going, and so there’s momentum that way.”
The private sector will be a key part of OCVA’s effort particularly since it is a non-profit representing the entire Oregon Coast, but the key is also in finding local champions to push the climate action message.
“If I were to do it again, I would go into communities first and find some local champions — if that’s business owners, or local legislators, you know, whoever that could be, chat with them to get them to start warming up their communities,” said OCVA’s Sears. “Like hey, that’s what this DMO (destination marketing organization) is doing, and then do it in levels of your key stakeholders and your community members and maybe your policymakers and then of course, like your media very last.”
Weaving climate action into a destination’s narrative, in collaboration with businesses, will be critical as well.
“Whether that’s local nonprofits that are already doing this work or business owners that have just taken it on their own to have solar panels and breweries capturing carbon, start asking them why they’re doing this and use them to help tell that story — and then the last thing is start looking at how will this impact your destination because that’s part of the story you’re going to tell when you’re explaining this work.”
The diverse nature of how destination marketing organizations are structured in the U.S. also means there’s not going to be a single model climate action process and plan. Each destination marketing group, according to their organizational structure, will have to figure out what applies and works best for their destinations.
Once OCVA completes drafting its ten-year climate action plan, it will reframe its marketing campaigns to address its efforts and influence visitors as Oregon’s big outdoor spaces continue to attract first-timers who are less informed.
For now, Oregon’s Sears and Martin have also been sharing their experience by speaking on the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization’s climate action educational panels that are taking place to help Glasgow Declaration signatories.
“The effects of climate change will look different in every destination and may look different in the middle of America versus the Oregon coast, but it will impact your destination, the experience you can offer there and the way that visitors get there,” said Sears. “So it’s definitely worthy of your time to start considering how you’re going to be part of the solution because tourism can be a part of the solution.”
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Photo credit: The Oregon Coast's regional tourism board is tackling climate action head on. MJ Tangonan / Unsplash