How Vail earned its Sustainable Mountain Resort Destination cred: balancing needs of community and the environment

Vail is not just a great ski destination but also rates high on sustainability. Vail has announced their certification as a sustainable mountain resort destination and is the world’s first destination to be certified to the Mountain IDEAL sustainable destination standard.

Also, as Vail adheres to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) destination criteria, it  makes for the first Certified Sustainable Destination in the US certified by a GSTC-Accredited certifying body, Green Destinations.

So how did they do it? The conditional certification is the result of a multi-year partnership between the Town of Vail, Walking Mountains Science Center, Sustainable Travel International, Vail Resorts, The U.S. Forest Service, and others. It marks the culmination of 56 years of leadership by the Vail community in progressive environmental conservation policies and programs.

“Recognizing that mountain destinations are acutely threatened by climate change, waning freshwater resources, and seasonal tourism peaks, Vail has made important strides in balancing the needs of its delicate ecosystem with the wants of travelers and the local community,” said Geoff Bolan, CEO of Sustainable Travel International.

Vail, Colorado

Photo: Connor Walberg via Flickr

5500 locals, 2.8 million tourists

Like many mountain resort destinations, Vail’s economy is highly dependent on tourism. While the town is home to just under 5,500 local residents, it welcomes 2.8 million travel lovers annually. Since the ski area’s founding in 1962, and the Town’s founding in 1966, Vail has focused on balancing tourism growth with local environmental and community needs.

It has taken many years to work towards the sustainable destination certification, which builds upon Vail’s long history of environmental conservation. Notable past achievements include the protection of open space being written into the Town Charter of 1966, the creation of the Vail Nature Center and Preserve in the 1970’s, and the creation of the 1% Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) in the 1980s which improves parks and open spaces.

More recent achievements include its proactive approach to restoring the water quality of Gore Creek and Vail Resort’s ambitious commitment to a zero net operating footprint by 2030.

“Over the years, the Town of Vail and community partners have taken steps to embed sustainability into the destination’s operations and throughout the visitor experience,” said Kristen Bertuglia, Environmental Sustainability Manager for the Town of Vail. “As a result, tourism development in Vail happens in a manner that protects nature, improves residents’ well-being, and preserves cultural heritage.”

“Vail Resorts is well on our way to carry out our ambitious Commitment to Zero by 2030,” said Doug Lovell, chief operating officer for Vail Mountain.

Vail colorado Jack-Affleck Sustainable Mountain Resort

Photo: Jack Affleck

Becoming The First Sustainable Mountain Resort Destination In The World

In advance of the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships held in Vail and Beaver Creek, the Town of Vail set out to achieve a lofty sustainability milestone: becoming the first destination in the United States to be certified to the GSTC destination standard. To achieve this, a multi-year partnership was established between the Town of Vail, Walking Mountains Science Center, and Sustainable Travel International.

The first step included launching Actively Green, a sustainability training and certification program for local businesses designed by Sustainable Travel International and run by Walking Mountains Science Center. Over 216 businesses have participated in the trainings and 57 businesses have been certified. In 2018, the Actively Green standard achieved “GSTC-Recognized” status.

The collaborative partnership also led to the development of the Mountain IDEAL destination standard. This standard has also achieved “GSTC-Recognized” status, meaning that the specific guidelines within the Mountain IDEAL standard are considered equivalent to a global standard.

“It was evident while working with Vail early on that traditional sustainable destination certifications were not completely viable for a mountain resort with large scale winter operations and a seasonal influx of both tourists and employees. While the groundwork existed, we realized we needed to use the GSTC Criteria to develop a new standard that would be better suited for not only Vail, but other mountain resort destinations in the future,” explained Kim Langmaid, Founder and Vice-President at Walking Mountains Science Center and Vail Town Council Member.

“The Mountain IDEAL standard addresses challenges faced in most mountain resort destinations including: managing impacts from overtourism, managing recreation on public lands, protecting vast watersheds and preserving scenic views, developing year-round employment and affordable housing, and embracing the unique mountain cultural heritage,” said Bobby Chappell, Senior Director of Standards and Monitoring at Sustainable Travel International.

Vail will continue to monitor and improve sustainability practices to maintain their Mountain IDEAL destination standard over time.

In July 2017, Green Destinations conducted an onsite assessment of Vail. Through a rigorous process, Green Destinations auditors reviewed documentation, interviewed key stakeholders, and completed a thorough evaluation of Vail’s overall approach to sustainable destination management.

Following a months-long certification process, Vail was officially certified to the Mountain IDEAL standard in December 2017 making it the first sustainable mountain resort destination in the world. Vail is also recognized as the first Certified Sustainable Destination in the United States because Green Destinations is a fully GSTC-Accredited Certification Body.

“This certification is a much-deserved testament to our community’s achievements. We hope it encourages other destinations to adopt the Mountain IDEAL standard and leads to increased collaboration around sustainability in mountain resort destinations,” said Langmaid.

Find out more at Sustainable Travel International.

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