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Vail, Colorado: What a Sustainable Mountain Resort Destination Looks Like

With their allure of outdoor adventure and breathtaking wilderness, mountain resorts are ever-popular tourism destinations. In fact, according to UNEP, mountain areas generate about 15-20 percent of global tourism.

As with any popular tourism destination, it is important to make sure that growth and development in mountain resorts happens in a sustainable manner. After all, a thriving community and healthy environment keeps everyone happy – visitors and locals, alike.  

But what does it mean to be a sustainable destination? And more specifically, what does it mean to be a sustainable mountain resort destination?

For the past five years, we’ve partnered with one of the world’s most prominent ski destinations, Vail, Colorado, to support them on their sustainability journey. We are thrilled to announce that Vail was recently certified to the Mountain IDEAL sustainable destination standard. This makes Vail the first certified sustainable mountain resort destination in the world and the first destination in the United States to be certified to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) Destination Criteria.

Through this journey, we’ve gained a better understanding of what it takes to be a sustainable mountain resort destination. Below we’ve shared a few key takeaways. We hope that by looking to Vail as an example, other destinations can achieve a better understanding of how they too can take action.

Mountain biking is just one of many outdoor recreation opportunities that attract visitors to Vail, Colorado. Credit: Town of Vail

1. Investing in long-term planning

Being a sustainable destination is all about maintaining balance between tourism growth and the needs of host communities. Achieving this balance helps protect nature, improve local well-being, and preserve cultural heritage.

Because destinations are constantly evolving, becoming sustainable is not something that happens overnight. It is a long-term process of embedding best practices and policies throughout the destination’s operations and visitor experience. Being successful at this requires effective planning and an ongoing commitment to improvement.

Vail has a long track record of prioritizing sustainability in their planning and policy-making. In 2017 they drafted the ‘Vail Mountain Resort Community Implementation Plan’ which is a living document that integrates all of Vail’s sustainability strategies in one place and supports the long term planning.  There are also a variety of supporting policies and plans that focus on visitor management, sustainable community development, and preserving Vail’s natural, cultural, and scenic assets.

Active Energies, a family-owned solar energy company, receives their Actively Green Sustainable Business Certification. Credit: John-Ryan Lockman

2. Inspiring community collaboration

A destination’s sustainability level is the collective result of everyone who plays a role in the visitor experience. To achieve sustainability, residents, government agencies, NGOs, and businesses must work together, with a shared goal of keeping the destination a vibrant place to live and visit. Destinations that foster active community collaboration and partnerships are much more likely to have success implementing initiatives and making widespread sustainability progress.

In Vail, a committee of key management stakeholders is responsible for managing sustainability efforts and addressing priority challenges in the destination. In addition, a stewardship council has been established which includes other representatives from across Vail, including Town Council members, business owners, community leaders, and local advocates. This stewardship council allows the entire community to have a voice and helps ensure that sustainability efforts are coordinated for the greatest impact.

Vail businesses are able to get involved and contribute to the collective sustainability of the destination through Walking Mountains Science Center’s Actively Green program. This sustainable business training and certification program helps local businesses incorporate best practices, such as energy efficiency, reducing waste, and educating guests. To date, over 216 businesses have participated in the trainings and 57 businesses have achieved certification.

Climate change impacts pose an increasing threat to mountain environments and winter recreation. Credit: Jack Affleck

3. Adapting for climate change

Despite their powerful appearance, mountain ecosystems are especially vulnerable to climate change impacts. Rising temperatures and decreasing snowfall can lead to freshwater shortages and an increased risk of environmental hazards. Because of this, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and natural hazard risk management should be priorities for mountain resort destinations.

Vail has made efforts to lessen its carbon footprint by reducing energy use and encouraging alternative forms of transportation. The Town has introduced energy-saving technologies such as LED lighting and solar panels, which have helped reduce electricity consumption by 34%. To encourage non-motorized transportation use, the Town hosts a green commuting challenge which has prevented over 85 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The Town is also taking action to prevent and prepare for natural hazards such as drought, avalanches, flooding, and wildfires. For instance, their Fire Resistant Landscaping “how to” guidebook educates residents about things they can do to protect their homes from wildfires.

As snowfall decreases, snowmaking is becoming an essential climate change adaptation activity for ski resorts. However, steps should be taken to make this process more efficient. By upgrading their equipment, Vail Resorts is able to produce snow faster and with less energy, saving more than 1.2 million kilowatt hours per year.

Adventurers can take in views of Vail’s scenic landscape while zip-lining down Vail Mountain, part of Vail Resorts’ Epic Discovery summer experience. Photo Credit: Vail Resorts / Jack Affleck

4. Creating year-round job opportunities

Because of the seasonal nature of mountain tourism, mountain resort economies tend to fluctuate throughout the year.  This can make it difficult for locals to find consistent, year-round employment. As winters get shorter, the winter ski season will likely get shorter too. This poses an added economic challenge for winter tourism destinations, where more snow days means more jobs and more money flowing into the local economy. According to a recent report by Protect Our Winters, a low snow year can cost the U.S. economy over $1 billion and 17,400 jobs. Developing year-round recreation opportunities should be a priority for mountain resort destinations to help attract guests during the off season and provide greater economic stability.

In Vail, new recreation experiences and events attract guests in snow free months and provide job opportunities during the off-season. In 2016, Vail Resorts launched their Epic Discovery program. This on-the-mountain summer experience connects guests with nature through activities like zip-lines, alpine coasters, wildlife trail exploration, and ropes courses. In addition, multiple special events now take place during the spring, summer, and fall months, including the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, the GoPro Mountain Games, the Vail Dance Festival, and Vail Oktoberfest.

A Certified Interpretive Guide shares information about Vail's environment on a nature walk organized by Walking Mountains Science Center. Credit: Walking Mountains Science Center

5. Preserving natural areas and wildlife

The natural environment is a significant part of the visitor appeal in mountain destinations. However, the construction of tourism facilities and increased human-wildlife interactions can end up degrading the very natural spaces, scenic landscapes, and biodiversity that visitors come to enjoy.

Nestled in a high-alpine valley in the heart of the White River National Forest, Vail is surrounded by unparalleled natural beauty. Realizing the value in protecting its natural assets, Vail has a long history of preserving its undeveloped land area and wildlife habitat. The protection of open space is included in the Town Charter which has led to Vail having more open space than any other resort community in the U.S. Overall, 36% of the destination area is protected from development by local and national legislation because of important ecosystems and habitat.

In addition, Vail has created opportunities for local tourism workers and visitors to take action. One way they are doing this is by training hospitality employees about best practices for interacting with wildlife and communicating this with guests. Vail visitors are able to contribute to local conservation efforts through Vail Resorts’ voluntary guest donation program that supports the National Forest Foundation Ski Conservation Fund.

Gore Creek—the mountain stream that runs through the heart of Vail—offers a peaceful respite for residents and visitors, important wildlife habitat, and a water supply for downstream communities. Credit: Jack Affleck

6. Combating environmental impacts of urban development

Poorly planned tourism development and increased visitor activity in mountain areas can result in harmful environmental impacts, such as pollution and waste. Increased development in fragile areas can create runoff and sedimentation which affects water quality and aquatic life. And more tourists typically equates to more waste. This not only diminishes the destination’s attractiveness, but also threatens sensitive ecosystems.

Vail has taken action to curb these impacts at the destination, local business, and visitor level. To improve the water quality of Gore Creek, the mountain stream that runs through Vail, the Town launched a campaign that implements creek improvement projects and educates the local community about ways to help. As part of their waste reduction efforts, the Town supports Zero Waste initiatives at special events, such as the Vail Farmers Market. They also passed a ban on plastic bags. which has resulted in a 90% reduction in single use bags.

With their “Epic Promise for a Zero Footprint” sustainability commitment, Vail Resorts is setting the bar high for how ski resorts and other companies can take action to mitigate their impacts. This ambitious undertaking commits to zero net emissions by 2030, zero waste to landfill by 2030 and zero net operating impact to forests and habitat, and will help vail achieve even deeper levels of sustainability.

A family discovers Vail’s natural beauty during a hike in the mountains. Credit: Jack Affleck

7. Striving for continuous improvement

Because sustainability is an ongoing process, it is important for destination managers to continually assess how the destination is doing and take appropriate action. For mountain resorts, the Mountain IDEAL standard is a valuable resource and roadmap. By outlining what it means to be a sustainable mountain resort destination, the Mountain IDEAL provides guidance for performing evaluations and identifying opportunities to improve.

Through a multi-year partnership between the Town of Vail, Walking Mountains Science Center, and Sustainable Travel International, Vail has officially become the first destination certified to the Mountain IDEAL standard. While this certification in itself is a tremendous achievement, it does not mean their job is done. There are always opportunities to build upon and enhance destination sustainability. We look forward to partnering with and supporting Vail on their continued journey and hope this work will set an example for other mountain resort destinations to follow.  

Header Image Credit: Jack Affleck

Learn More About Our Work in Vail

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