How to build forward better: Interview with Ellen Walker-Matthews from the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association

The Thompson Okanagan Region in British Columbia and the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA) have been internationally recognised for their work in sustainable tourism management and development. The region is the first destination in the Americas to have successfully achieved the Sustainable Tourism Destination Certification from the Responsible Tourism Institute. TOTA are also a founding signatory of the Future of Tourism Coalition. Here Rebecca Waller talks to vice-president Ellen Walker-Matthews to find out more about their holistic approach to tourism development, their huge achievements so far and their work to support the industry during the current pandemic.

How to build forward better: Interview with Ellen Walker-Matthews from the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association
Myra-Bellevue Provincial Park

REBECCA: What have been the TOTA’s priorities in shaping the Thompson Okanagan region as a sustainable destination?

ELLEN: To us, shaping a sustainable destination means taking a holistic approach to creating a strong and healthy tourism economy whilst minimizing the impact on our natural and cultural resources. That includes encouraging and promoting “green” and responsible tourism, inclusivity, accessibility and Indigenous tourism. We’re building upon the four pillars of sustainable tourism: Profit, People, Place, and Partners – with the goal to not only preserve and protect, but to create positive impacts and inspire meaningful change.

Ellen Walker-Matthews
TOTA’s vice president Ellen Walker-Matthews

A few of our initiatives include a joint partnership with Spinal Cord BC/Access BC in an effort to enhance accessibility and inclusivity of the region; A focus on elevating the authentic story of the Interior Salish peoples driven by a rich culture and history; Partnership with the Okanagan Collaborative Conservation Program to address challenges of wildlife corridors; Water stewardship and the protection of our foreshore, as well as many other regional environmental concerns, and a recent initiative with a regional university to measure and monitor resident sentiment through the Happiness Project.


REBECCA: In 2017, the Thompson Okanagan Region was certified as the first destination in the Americas to achieve the Biosphere Tourism Destination Certification from the Responsible Tourism Institute. What were your main challenges in achieving this recognition?

ELLEN: The main challenges we faced in achieving this designation were ones we had largely anticipated and were prepared to take on. Initially, a long global search for certifying bodies ultimately led us to the Biosphere designation, which was our top choice due to their holistic approach and incorporation of the UNWTO 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which have guided our organization for the past eight years and counting. We went through an extensive process which included interviews and meetings around the region, sourcing documents and data and securing evidence to answer the 137 questions that form the certification intake process. This work ultimately helped us understand our region better and define its needs more clearly.

Being the first destination in the Americas to obtain this certification, we then had to execute a communications plan to articulate the importance of this certification to our stakeholders, our partners, and our guests, in order to work collectively and effectively toward our common goals.

REBECCA: TOTA set up the Tourism Resiliency Program to support the tourism industry during the pandemic. What kind of support has been particularly valuable for your stakeholders?

ELLEN: TOTA together with our other regional partners which form the BCRTS, realized almost immediately the devastating effect the pandemic was having on our tourism stakeholders and the industry. Through daily outreach calls by our team members, the feedback was clear – businesses were in free fall and owners and operators unable to navigate the various funding opportunities as they were caught up in dealing with immediate and mounting losses of revenue. Collectively we developed and designed the Tourism Resiliency Program to provide one on one support and hands on guidance to help identify the needs and the programs that best addressed those needs.

Our teams did and continue to make every effort to ensure our stakeholders feel heard, understood, supported, and that they are not in this alone by connecting on a personal level. This level of contact also enabled our teams to identify the gaps in the funding programs and other initiatives and take those messages as a collective and cohesive voice to the government, resulting in changes to many programs. We have continued to provide information updates and access to resources on a regular basis through our one on one calls, as well as eblasts, webinars, and access to experts. The support has moved well beyond providing access and recommendations for funding, and has assisted in providing marketing and messaging tools, training sessions on a wide variety of subject areas and access to mental health support, to name a few.

How to build forward better: Interview with Ellen Walker-Matthews from the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association
Photo credit Hubert Kang

REBECCA: TOTA was one of the original signatories of the ‘The Future of Tourism Coalition’. What were your motivations for signing up to the Coalition’s guiding principles?

ELLEN: Over the past year, the tourism industry has faced more challenges than ever before. Through all of the uncertainties, we have been looking for opportunities to not only recover, but initiate positive change on a regional and global scale. There is room to re-evaluate old habits and build resiliency in alignment with our long-term goals. The Future of Tourism Coalition’s mission is to place destination needs at the center of tourism’s new future, which encompasses both our short and long-term objectives. We are proud to have a global partner and ally sharing our values and intentions so closely.

REBECCA: What do you hope the Coalition will achieve and how do you feel TOTA can best contribute?

ELLEN: Tourism serves many masters but it can and should be a vehicle for peace and understanding as people worldwide connect and share experiences as they explore the culture and history together. Through the Coalition we hope to see tourism Build Forward Better – not Build Back Better. We have the opportunity, as we come out of this crisis, to manage tourism better, to focus not on the quantity of tourists but the quality of the experiences and to develop tourism in such a way that it is a benefit to communities and regions. We need to ensure we invite the right visitor to the right place at the right time and rewrite the travel message in such a way that it will cause the traveller to be inspired to protect and nurture the history and nature of a place and become more enriched by their experiences. This means leaving a place the way you found it, if not better.

REBECCA: Is there any practical support that would be particularly valuable to TOTA or to your many stakeholders?

ELLEN: Currently we are in the early stages of developing a regional dashboard to assist ourselves and our stakeholders in monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of the sustainability work that is ongoing in the region. Within the framework of our regional development strategy, one of our priorities is to improve and extend the data availability to support better evidenced based decision making. This platform will help overcome the lack of reliable and more holistic insights about the impacts of tourism, including better information on resource use. Further it will prevent the scattered nature of information sources, which has long been a challenge.

REBECCA: What would be your top tips for destinations just embarking on their journeys to become more sustainable?


  • Become knowledgeable on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and how they relate to your area
  • Set manageable priorities; identify specific SDG’s or items within an SDG that you can target annually
  • Form an interdepartmental committee who can assist with sourcing / accessing available information for your destination as it relates to each of the 17 SDG’s
  • Establish baseline data and identify how to implement ongoing measurements
  • Appreciate that not everyone will fully understand the need for sustainable tourism. This is not a trend, rather it is a slow but steadily growing focus of attention and the pandemic has assisted in elevating the issues, importance and relevance of building a responsible and sustainable tourism industry.
  • Sustainability is a management tool and critical to the long term health and wellbeing of our tourism assets and areas;  it is not a marketing tool – it will however play a role in the success or failure of all of our destinations in the future.
How to build forward better: Interview with Ellen Walker-Matthews from the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association
Photo credit Grant Harder
Rebecca Waller
Rebecca Waller
Rebecca Waller holds an MSc. in Responsible Tourism Management and specialises in sustainable tourism product development, with a focus on Latin America and East Africa. She is also a freelance writer and currently edits the news for Travindy and the blog section for Sumak Travel.

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