What is the price you would pay for paradise?
For many cities, counties and countries across the world, a tourism fee is a sufficient starting sum.
As travel has rebounded since the start of the pandemic, an increasing number of popular destinations are considering a tourism tax to curb over-tourism and fund development. Visiting the San Juan Islands, too, may soon cost a little more.
San Juan County is seeking public feedback through the end of October on a proposal to implement an annual fee of $10-$15 for bikes, boats and cars. Residents and visitors would be required to purchase the passes, which would fund management and infrastructure improvements needed to address the impacts of more people on the islands, the county said.
If approved, residents and visitors would be required to purchase the pass — similar to the Discover Pass — to display on their bikes, boats and cars.
When San Juan County first addressed tourism on the islands in 1985 there were 17,000 annual visitors, equal to today’s full-time resident population. The island population has since been on a steady rise with each passing decade, just over 1% per year in the last 10 years, according to the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. Seasonal visitation has also steadily increased, the bureau said.
Since 2018, there has been an average of 650,000 visitors per year to the islands, with most visits concentrated on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands. In summer, the county experiences a surge of travelers, with the majority of tourists visiting between June and September, according to county data.
Tourism is a top economic driver, second only to construction in terms of tax revenue generation and local job creation, and the community has identified the need for balance between the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of growth, the county said.
The draft plan aims to address the challenges tourism brings to the islands’ sensitive natural and cultural resources, its limited public infrastructure and people seeking consistent employment and affordable housing, the county said.
The last few years have put a strain on business owners like Anna Maria de Freitas, who owns two inns and a restaurant on San Juan Island.
With the current pace of tourism, shoulder seasons have practically disappeared, she said, “and I don’t think that’s sustainable from the business perspective nor is it sustainable for our fragile ecosystem.”
Through the plan, “there’s a balance we’re trying to strike” between residents and visitors, de Freitas said, who is also a San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau board member and member of the Friday Harbor Town Council.
“There’s some folks on the islands who want to say, ‘Put up the bridge; we don’t need tourists,’” de Freitas said, “but they realize if they don’t have tourists, there’s a lot of things they’re not going to have on this island, and our quality of life would definitely change.”
The plan is built on community feedback received through surveys, research and public engagement events since 2016. It includes 29 infrastructure projects totaling an estimated $10.7 million and 58 management actions totaling an estimated $2.3 million that address accommodations, hiking and recreation trails, mobility and more. For example, the county wants to expand trails, enhance road safety, create additional camping locations and establish an electric shuttle boat service between all islands.
The pass proposal received “low to medium” support from residents on the three main islands during the public meeting process in 2022, according to county data.
“I just have a hard time with [the pass] saying ‘residents,’” said one San Juan Island resident during a May 2022 community feedback meeting. “I think there’s another way of doing it, and as a resident, I find it very offensive.”
There is a widespread local perception that it is visitors, not residents, who are overwhelming the islands, with 94% of residents and 79% of businesses indicating the islands are at or over capacity, according to a 2017 survey.
This proposal is “the ultimate balancing act,” said Kendra Smith, a project manager for the plan, as the county tries to figure out how to “support both the residents and the visitors and their experiences, too.”
San Juan County was first the Leave No Trace county in the country, adopting the framework of minimum-impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors, Smith added, “and to carry that ethos forward requires that you do some thinking about how you manage visitation in the islands — and that was our task.”
Despite broad support from residents, businesses and visitors for actions outlined in the draft plan, there is limited funding to implement the improvements, the county said.
“Everyone made recommendations of what they wanted, but the fundamental question is, ‘How would we pay for that?’” Smith said.
In addition to the pass, the county is proposing a business license system. The county would also like to expand the existing state-level lodging tax advisory committee to help steer money toward action items, but lodging tax funds are earmarked for “tourism promotion,” and many measures under the draft plan would not qualify.
The proposed tourism fee would “certainly generate the most revenue,” added Angela Broderick, another project manager for the plan, although case studies, legal review, economic consultation and implementation feasibility for collecting funds have not yet been explored.
As most of Washington is trying to increase tourism and bring in more tourist revenue, “we’re at a very different place,” Broderick said. “We sit in a position to be leaders in the state in terms of establishing what balance looks like and what sustainable tourism really means.”
It’s important to remember the plan is just “a very preliminary draft” right now, and “nothing is concrete,” said Amy Nesler, the communications manager at the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, which has been advocating for such a plan for “the better part of a decade.”
After public feedback comment, the San Juan County Council will review the draft plan, followed by a tribal engagement effort with Coast Salish Tribes, whose ancestral territory includes the San Juan Islands.
A final draft will be brought to the council in 2024.
The county is gathering feedback on the plan through Oct. 31. Feedback can be submitted online at st.news/sanjuanislands or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.