If year one of the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that you have to stay on your toes when responding to the constantly changing world around you. This is something Nicole Whiting, Executive Director for the Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization understands full well and put into practice in year two in 2021.

As executive director of a tourism organization at a time when tourism is facing complex challenges due to the pandemic, Nicole has the responsibility of guiding and reshaping our region’s approach to meet a rapidly changing landscape.

“Before the pandemic, our focus was on how to attract outside visitors to the region,” Nicole explained. “When travel restrictions came into play we realized that we had to completely change our strategy, and quickly.”

Accordingly, 2021 was a time for Nicole, OHTO staff, and the board of directors to reflect on lessons learned in 2020 and assess a new vision and approach.

“We realized that our industry needed our support more than ever; revenues were down, availability of staff was limited, incorporating regulations was a huge undertaking, and the clientele was totally changing.  The focus was going to be local, and we were really going to have to engage with and connect with our local communities.”

To further complicate matters, Nicole explained it quickly became clear in the early days of the pandemic that many tourism offerings in Ontario’s Highlands “were in really high demand” and as a result, there were new challenges to deal with, like over tourism and an influx of new investors purchasing properties and generational businesses.

Nicole and the Board of Directors recognized that the 2021 business planning needed to address these growing issues, so the organization could focus on offering support, connecting with locals, and strengthening communities through responsible tourism.

“The challenges we are facing are greater than any one business or organization can tackle, a community-driven approach that balances prosperity and preservation of our rural quality of life is what has become our North Star,” explained Nicole.

Turning to principles of responsible tourism made sense and was a clear-cut way of responding to the challenges the industry was facing in Ontario. Shifting the focus to introduce responsible tourism principles into the operational plan was a trial-and-error process, but one with tremendous reward potential and is continuously evolving.

“Our approach has been one of continuous learning and experimenting on the ways we can follow through on our guiding principles, and how we can educate our industry and our visitors about this journey,” said Nicole.

A journey is an apt description of the responsible tourism approach embraced by OHTO. In essence, responsible tourism invites visitors and operators to look at long-term sustainability through a variety of lenses, through inclusivity, community stewardship, and health and safety.

Looking ahead to 2022, Nicole is excited to be continuing OHTO’s journey into responsible tourism and committing to learning more about what that means for the organization. Educating herself, the board and the OHTO team was the first step, but next up is extending that education to communities and stakeholders.

“We feel really good about where we are right now,” said Nicole. “We’re still in a recovery and rebuilding stage but through engaging with our industry we’ll know when we need to revise or change course.”

The future in tourism may be uncertain in Ontario, but Nicole sees the silver lining in the changes brought by the pandemic.

“It’s exciting to see how much Ontarians enjoy our tourism offerings, and how they are developing a really strong connection to what the province has to offer,” said Nicole. “I think when things start opening up and we start attracting visitors from further afield we’ll see even greater demand. I’m excited about that, and the longevity of local support for tourism.”

For Ontario’s Highlands’ tourism operators, Nicole feels even greater optimism for 2022. Over the past two years, Nicole has been inspired by the resiliency and innovation demonstrated by Ontario’s Highlands’ tourism operators, particularly in the face of such complex challenges.

In particular, seeing the way businesses have come to lean on one another is encouraging, and a trend Nicole hopes will continue into the future.

Her advice for business owners heading into 2022 is clear cut and simple:

“Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s difficult but it’s working, and OHTO is here to help along the way.”