Part 2 – What about the non-economic impacts of wine tourism? 

As studies of established and emerging wine regions around the world have shown, rapid increases in tourism to regions whose appeal depend on their “viewscapes” (in our case “winescapes”), rural character and the sustainable produce of the region can kill the goose that laid the golden egg.  Without a sensible, supportive policy framework, wine tourism can lead to such effects as clogged local roads, urbanisation pressures on arable land, and conflicts between winery practices (e.g. vineyard spraying, early morning tractors and/or air guns to keep the birds away) and accommodation operators, guests and/or residents who want to enjoy the peaceful, rural setting of wine country.   Adverse agricultural and environmental impacts from the pressures of wine tourism can have substantial negative effects on the tourism value, and the product value, of a wine region.

How to avoid this nightmare?  A few years ago, together with two Simon Fraser University colleagues, I researched the impacts of provincial/state and regional land use policies in Oregon, Washington and BC on the development of wine tourism.[1]  We found that first, a sensible policy approach to wine tourism acknowledges the multiple demands on the land base, protects the agricultural assets that make a region attractive and known for quality wines, and fosters the development of amenities (e.g. visitor education via tours etc, picnicking, dining and accommodation) that convey a special sense of place and add value to the visitor experience.

Second, we found that regional/local policies are as important as provincial/state level policies at balancing agricultural needs and tourism pressures (e.g. setting the permitted quantity or area (square feet/metres) of secondary buildings on agricultural parcels, establishing a maximum number of rooms for agri-tourism accommodation etc).

Third, we found that Oregon’s Willamette Valley seemed to strike the best balance among these competing imperatives – one which preserves the agricultural needs of wineries for their vineyards to continue producing great New World Pinot Noir (as an unapologetic Oregon Pinot fan, I am far from neutral on this!), protected the rural, farm-gate feel of the region, and supplied ample amenities and enhanced the tourism experience for visitors.  A key to this was that most amenities (particularly dining and accommodation) had been developed off-site, reducing the pressure on limited agricultural land.

Last, we observed that of the three regions under study, BC had taken the most robust steps in developing wine tourism in the Okanagan. At that time (2005/6) provincial rules had recently been relaxed on wines by the glass on-site at a winery, the ability to host special occasions, and agri-tourism accommodation.

We noted in conclusion: “Indeed, a supportive and responsive policy regime that provides clear guidance for wine tourism land use, related infrastructure development, and programming decisions is an important cornerstone in sustaining the competitiveness of wine regions.”

Looking Ahead

The hints offered last month by the government about streamlining rules on how and where BC wineries can showcase and sell their products make eminent economic sense and will undoubtedly support tourism growth.  Some of these will also have land use impacts (expanding picnic areas doesn’t sound like a major encroachment on vineyard land, but our study’s cautionary observation was that “weak policies that encourage a ‘creeping incrementalism’ in wine tourism land use development must be avoided if the core viticulture and aesthetic assets of regions are to be sustained.”).  Allowing off-site secondary retail outlets encourages operators to bring their products to their larger markets like Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria.[2] This has two benefits: minimises agricultural land use pressures and should help marketing efforts among potential customer groups that are not prepared to travel for four hours or more to the Okanagan.

As the majority of the Liquor Policy Review recommendations are unveiled in the coming weeks, I for one will be hoping for more tourism-friendly initiatives.  But I will also be looking for evidence that before government implements the recommendations, it has considered agricultural and environmental impacts of tourism-enhancing policies, and – working with regional bodies like the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen and the Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association – it protects the attributes that make BC wine country and BC wines both competitive and sustainable.

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[1] Williams, Graham & Mathias, 2006, “Land Use Policy and Wine Tourism Development in North America’s Pacific Northwest”, in eds. Carlson and Charters, Global Wine Tourism: Research, Management and Marketing. Available at http://vinumvine.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/jack-carlsen-stephen-charters-global-wine-tourism-research-management-and-marketing.pdf.

[2] Presumably these will be operated separately from the existing VQA stores.

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