Last week I had the honor of meeting with students from Anne Porter’s Hospitality and Tourism high school class. After giving the students a town hall tour, we discussed the tourist industry here on the plateau. I blathered on about how tourism is a pillar of the Highlands and Cashiers economy, and how the town and chamber supported the tourist industry. I also covered the current issues of short-term rentals and the collection and distribution of the room occupancy tax.
As the class departed for another class, I realized that Ms. Porter’s class curriculum is very relevant to these students in that many of them may eventually work here or at other locations in the tourism and hospitality industry. If they go to universities like Western Carolina, they can major in this business.
I also discussed with the students the future challenges and pressures that a growing tourism industry places on a community like Highlands. While the revenue from this industry is essential to the economic vitality of the community, I shared some of my concerns about maintaining a balance between smart tourist growth and preserving this beautiful and attractive community.
This concern about maintaining a balance in not just relevant to Highlands, it is a concern throughout the world. Elizabeth Becker wrote Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, in 2013. In her book she pointed out that large populations of tourists, about 1.4 billion people a year, place environmental and sociological pressures on historic sites, ecologically sensitive environments and communities. Becker expresses concern for what she calls “rapacious tourism.”
George Stone published an article in National Geographic last September entitled Sustainable Tourism. The article appeared on World Tourism Day, which is kind of a knock off of Earth Day. Stone identifies four areas for a sustainable tourism model. First, the environment must be protected. Some tourist venues are being compromised by the sheer volume of visitors. Second, the tourist industry has to address climate change. I recently read that on a long tourist destination flight the fuel needed to transport each passenger generates enough CO2 to melt 3 square meters of arctic ice. Third, the consumption of plastic at tourist venues needs to be minimized. Finally, the economic development of tourist communities needs to be expanded. With a growing tourist venue workforce availability, housing, healthcare and displacement are challenges to be met.
With that said, the major pillar of our local economy is tourism. The question to me is how do we build a sustainable, eco-friendly tourist industry of the future?
So, I go back to the class I met with and the young people that will be our future workers and community leaders. They too will have opportunities and challenges in developing and sustaining our tourist industry.
The mayor cannot address nor solve these problems, but the community working together can. I have been in discussions with the new leadership of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is aware of these issues and will be doing a comprehensive economic plan in the near future. In addition, the Town of Highlands is about to begin a comprehensive community plan that will foster effective community partnering. We will bring in a consulting firm to guide our planning board and community stakeholders through the process. Our shared goals should be to make strategic plans that insure economic sustainability, community vitality and preservation of this beautiful environment that we all treasure.
- Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor