Background Resources

This page contains helpful background context and information, previous tourism studies conducted by the County and its partners, relevant sustainable tourism plans and case studies from around the world, and other tourism-related work that is happening in the county concurrently.

Our Process

San Juan County is creating a Sustainable Tourism Management Plan to thoughtfully guide tourism that both supports and enhances the unique quality of life, environment, and cultural heritage of the San Juan Islands.

The goal for this project is to deliver a plan of action to tourism that meets the needs of our community, environment, economy, and visitors. The Sustainable Tourism Management Plan will lay out the impacts and opportunities that tourism presents in San Juan County and provide a comprehensive roadmap for sustaining our community and resource needs, now and into the future.


Tourism is a major economic driver in the County that helps support year-round livability for Island residents.  It is also a management challenge for our sensitive natural and cultural resources, our limited public and utility infrastructure, and for those seeking consistent employment and affordable housing in the Islands.  Each of the ferry-served island communities in the County hold differing interests and preferences regarding tourism but retain commonly held values they wish to protect. Coast Salish Tribes also wish to protect their ancestral lands and waters, and the rights they hold here. The County will work with Tribes on a government-to-government basis to gather input and facilitate engagement with the formation of the County’s Sustainable Tourism Plan.

The County and its partners began engaging the community in this effort in 2016, and have completed multiple surveys, public engagement events, and information gathering. This Plan will build off the extensive work and recommendations already completed; click here to see the planning process and current Plan materials.


The total estimated budget for both phases of the project is $200,000. LTAC voted in favor of requesting approval of an updated total project budget to this amount at the December 16, 2021,meeting. The work will be executed under the Department of Environmental Stewardship.


​San Juan County and National Park Service worked in cooperation with the San Juan Islands Terrestrial Managers Group to conduct a series of surveys, asking a sample of visitors, residents and businesses on the islands about tourism issues. These surveys provided a unique opportunity for the public to help government officials make good tourism decisions which would maximize benefits and minimize impacts.

2017 San Juan Islands Visitors Study

San Juan County, the National Park Service, and the Terrestrial Managers Group worked cooperatively with Confluence on a multifaceted Visitor Study in 2017 (published February 2018).  The study had several components as listed below.  This is the primary document for learning about visitors to the San Juan Islands, as well as background information about visitation levels and the accommodation options they use.  The study is pre-pandemic, so some visitation trends may be dated. 

  • Onsite survey: This element surveyed people at visitor sites or park units.  It provides information about evaluations of crowding and facilities, and profiles visitors and residents that used these sites. 

  • Ferry survey: This element surveyed people waiting for ferries to Anacortes (mostly visitors, but some residents).  It provided more complete profiles of respondent characteristics, their recreation participation, the attractions they visited, reasons for visiting, evaluations of use densities at beach and marine viewing areas, and support for management actions. 

  • Accommodation inventory: This element reviewed the numbers and types of overnight accommodations used by visitors, and then compared them with visitation estimates.  It includes discussion of Vacation Rentals and use of vacant or second homes. 

  • Visitation analysis: This element described patterns and trends of visitation numbers from Washington State and other ferries, cruise ships, airlines and charters, and private boats.

  • Counts and distributions: This element provided site-specific use information at visitor sites, park units, or along road segments.

2019 Tourism and Visitor Management in the San Juan Islands

In 2019, San Juan County and the National Park Service worked cooperatively with the same group of agencies and Confluence to conduct additional studies (published January 2020).  These included several reports as listed below.  The resident and business survey reports provide parallel information to the 2017 ferry survey and is probably the most relevant for tourism planning, but the survey of all-island boaters and remote island boaters provides useful information for those visitor sectors. 

  • Part 1: Survey of residents and businesses​: This report summarized profiles of residents and businesses, including length of residency and proportion who work on the islands.  Profiles of businesses include estimates of tourism-related revenue.  The bulk of the survey focused on parallel questions to the ferry survey (of visitors) about reasons for living/working on the islands, traffic and congestion, crowding at sites, sustainable tourism, capacity, specific management actions, ferry use, and targets for tourism promotion.

  • Part 2: Survey of all-island boaters: This report focused on visiting boaters at the main marinas on the islands, and asked parallel questions to the visitor, resident, and business surveys of this specialized type of visitor, including reasons for visiting, onshore activities, crowding at sites, sustainable tourism, capacity, specific management actions, and Orca whale management issues. 

  • Part 3: Survey of remote island boaters: This report focused on boaters that visited select remote islands and offered additional information about these boaters.  It included some parallel questions to the visitor survey about reasons for visiting and evaluations of crowding, with other questions similar to the 2017 onsite surveys about evaluating conditions and facilities on remote islands, as well as specific management actions for those islands. 

  • Part 4: Conclusions and recommendations: This report is perhaps the most useful of all the Confluence-prepared documents; it summarizes major findings and puts them in context for future tourism and natural resource planning.  For readers looking to minimize their homework for the tourism plan, this shorter document is a good place to start.  It includes several broad conclusions about what previous studies described, as well as a starting list of specific management actions (organized by island and for all islands) that might be considered in a Sustainable Tourism Master Plan. 

2017 Visitor Management Assessment

This February 2017 report summarized an Oct 2016 workshop among agencies and stakeholders about SJI recreation and tourism issues.  The workshop reviewed existing information, brainstormed and prioritized issues, and considered example management actions.  Notable output from the workshop included initial analysis of existing information, long-term visitation trends, recreation impacts, and visitor management “hot spots.”  The document included descriptions of information gaps and some study options to fill those gaps (which were later addressed with the 2017 and 2019 studies).​

Parks, Trails and Natural Areas and Non-motorized Transportation Plan

The San Juan County Parks, Trails, Natural Areas and Non-motorized Transportation Plan provides a 20-year long-term vision and six-year plan to guide action and investment in a wide variety of outdoor spaces and facilities managed by San Juan County.

Over the course of one year, San Juan County assessed community needs, engaged the public, and crafted a plan that strengthens the counties systems. This Plan charts a clear future for San Juan County Parks, the Land Bank, and Public Works, which are the three county departments charged with overseeing county parks, trails, and natural areas facilities.


Case Studies

It is always reassuring to know there are many other communities that share similarities to ours and have invested in strategies and projects we might want to consider here. We can learn from what worked and what didn’t. And we can pick and choose, like an a la carte menu, what to implement and adapt. 


The two examples here are communities are similar to San Juan County in that they bring in visitors from near and far. And there are times of year the visitors outnumber the locals by many times. 


Other Tourism-Related Information