From ads inviting you to workshops on the new cultural plan to snippets of headlines and overheard conversations, Whistlerites are hearing more and more about cultural tourism and how it can reinvigorate the community and the local economy. But don't think for a minute this is some fuzzy "out-there" notion to be relegated to a cultural "cult" of artists, museums and the like.
The cultural tourism Whistler has in mind is dynamic, palpable. It has everything to do with the simple idea of the place itself — and you. Why you came here, why you love this crazy place and state of mind called Whistler.
This week we'll grab this thing called place-based cultural tourism by the tail, or at least one of its many legs, and try to understand it. What does it look and feel like? Why is it important? Next week, we'll explore how you breathe life into this special kind of tourism so it doesn't become just a report sitting on some dusty shelf.
If you haven't been to the Tourism Whistler website lately — why, you may well ask, would you if you live here? — check it out.
A very cool little video is attached to one of the braver new components of the site, The Whistlers Insiders, which is run by the perfect candidate, writer and filmmaker Feet Banks, who has pretty much lived in Whistler all his life and has a nice cheeky streak to him.
The three-or-so-minute video is all about the experiences of a couple of guys who lived what a lot of people would call a dream come true. They got to hang out in Whistler for a month. For free. As in all expenses paid.
One, "Lucky Luke", otherwise known as Luke Dillon back home in England, was the winner in the Whistler Sabbatical Project, a contest run earlier this year by Tourism Whistler. All you had to do was write a 250-word essay about what a sabbatical in Whistler would mean to you. The other fellow featured is his sidekick, Tim Davis, the friend he chose to bring with him, also known as "Tag-along Tim".
From a white-knuckle bobsled run and tumbling — with appropriate whoops — through seven feet of fresh snow on the slopes to go-go dancing in hot pink wigs to the thumping electronic music of the club scene and helping chef James Walt "dish up" at Araxi, Luke and Tim jump into Whistler feet first.
Throughout, they deliver a running commentary of straight-up remarks that would be the envy of any tourism destination that has aspirations like Whistler's. You'll have to add in their charming English accents yourself, but here's a sampling, not necessarily contiguous:
Luke: "We've just never experienced anything like it before...
Luke: "... And the bobsled itself was totally unreal... like the adrenaline rush as you get going around those corners..."
Tim: "If the next four weeks go like that — fantastic! Bring it on!"
Tim: "Go-go dancing kind of captures the spirit of people in Whistler, which is to go out, let loose, have fun. Not worry too much, not be too inhibited..."
Luke: "Everybody we've met has been absolutely amazing, like we haven't met a single unfriendly person.
Tim: "They're just friendly in a way that we we're not used to in the hustle and bustle of life in London. people aren't friendly like that to strangers ... and they are here! It's refreshing..."
Luke: "Yeah, it's really nice..."
Tim: "It's such a relaxed kind place; it feels so close to nature. It sounds kind of corny, but for two guys who've grown up in the city, we don't ever see stuff like that."
As Luke and Tim's month of soaking up the Whistler vibe wound down and they were facing the trip back to reality, Tim had this to say at a wrap-up event: "It's ruined our lives, basically, because you can't have more fun than this... Like, we don't know what we're going to do when we get home, because it doesn't get any better than this."
Then Luke nailed it with this comment: "What we've decided is Whistler is probably a life style, rather than a place..."
Which means they're hooked like so many other people have been.
BUILDING ON THE VIBE
What Luke's alluding to is that the very thing that delighted he and Tim and sparked their imaginations — and hopefully a return trip — is something greater than the sum of its parts: it's the entire combination of what makes Whistler Whistler, and it lies at the very core of the type of cultural tourism the community is hot on the trail of these days.
To be precise, place-based cultural tourism is its full name, and the official textbook definition, straight from the man who coined the term, goes like this:
"From Paris to Prague, from Santa Fe to San Francisco, from L'Anse-aux-Meadows to Haida Gwaii, sense of place is fundamental to cultural tourism.
"This is where place-based cultural tourism parts company with attractions-based cultural tourism: In place-based cultural tourism, the heart of the visitor experience is encountering the destination as a whole — its history and heritage, its narratives and stories, its landscape, its townscape, its people. It is discovering what makes the destination distinctive, authentic and memorable. It is the experience of 'place.'
"In a single phrase, the place is the product," writes cultural tourism specialist Steven Thorne (emphasis his) in "A Tapestry of Place," Whistler's cultural tourism development strategy. The study and subsequent report were commissioned by the Resort Municipality of Whistler in the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympic games and the huge cultural Olympiad offerings Whistler hosted as part of it, which followed on the heels of Whistler's designation in 2009 as a Cultural Capital of Canada.
Tim and Luke's adventure included things like a photography lesson with professional action sports photographer, Blake Jorgensen; singing on stage with local songstress, Ali Milner, during a concert at the GLC; and a full-day cultural experience at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, including storytelling and dancing. But it didn't focus on these kinds of things — things that most people would think of as traditional cultural events or attractions. And you could add a lot more to that list, such as live theatre and dance performances, art shows in or outside of galleries, museum visits and the like.
Regardless of the fact that Luke and Tim experienced Whistler through the lens of "all expenses paid" and all the other special treatment you'd expect on a trip hosted by Tourism Whistler, they were just as happy simply relaxing and hanging out, being in Whistler, doing what you typically do here, and soaking up the vibe.
Which is exactly what this kind of cultural tourism is all about (Note that for simplicity's sake, "cultural tourism" is used throughout this article as shorthand for "place-based cultural tourism", unless noted otherwise).
"To me cultural tourism means what I feel when I'm in Florence, Italy differently from what I feel when I'm in Paris, France, differently from what it feels like when I'm in Nelson B.C., differently from what I feel when I'm in Whistler, B.C.," says Doti Niedermayer, executive director of the Whistler Arts Council, who, along with her storied past in arts and culture, has travelled extensively and lived abroad.
"These are completely different cultures with their own landscapes, their own people, their own food, their own languages — they are completely distinct from one another. They have a smell, they have a feel — you feel differently when you are there.
"And what you do is different in each of those places. In some places you are more likely to hike, in some places you are more likely to sit in a square, so to me it's why I travel and why I think most people travel — it's to be somewhere else and steeped in a different landscape, in a different culture and language; different textures, arts, different everything — it's all of those things together."
That "whole enchilada" concept is the foundation of place-based cultural tourism. It's what "Lucky Luke" and "Tag-along Tim" experienced as they soaked up Whistler and called a "lifestyle", and it's what Mayor Nancy Wilhelm–Morden sees, too.
"Absolutely, it (cultural tourism) is the whole package, there's no question about that," says Wilhelm-Morden.
"I don't think there is anybody who lives here who ever takes for granted, for one, the absolutely spectacular setting, but ... it's always a magical thing for me when I am speaking with visitors who talk about the entire experience — the beautiful setting and then all of the offerings that are here, whether it's just a walk where they can step outside and be in wilderness immediately, and then half an hour later you're back in the village experiencing the great culinary stuff."
It almost goes without saying that, given its evolution, sports are a huge part of Whistler's culture. But besides that, and the unique vibe and special setting — which includes not only the glorious natural environment, but the built environment, too (think gothic arch and A-frame cabins and the huge trail network for biking and walking, or even something as simple as the village streetscapes) — Thorne, in consultation with the community, indentified other elements that help make up the "whole enchilada."
These include personalities past and present like Myrtle and Alex Philip, of course, and Florence Peterson, Garry Watson and Ken Melamed, Dave Murray and even The
Hairfarmers. As well, there are the tales and narratives from the past like the legendary squatters, ski bums and hippie jocks; Seppo's infamous parties; and the village built on the old garbage dump, as well as more current narratives, such as the research being done on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains on climate change.
No surprise that the resort is good at it, given it's healthy, active lifestyle and natural setting, but even Whistler's many spas have been indentified as an important part of its culture and what it can offer the world in terms of cultural tourism.
KEEPING IT REAL
If these constitute some of the main threads of this "tapestry" called place-based cultural tourism, then what gives the fabric its quality, its depth and its shine is authenticity. That means, in short, keeping it real.
In this context, authenticity means you don't lay on a false veneer and transplant what other places might be doing that works for them, or use generic "spectacles" like, say, Disney on Ice to create culture.
"Cultural tourism encompasses what makes Whistler Whistler. If you talk to a local and ask, 'why are you here, what kept you in Whistler?' those are the pieces or fragments of what makes our place-based tourism appealing to others," says Tara (Wight) Colpitts, who, when she's not at her day-job as director of sales and marketing for Coast Blackcomb Suites at Whistler, is a member of the steering committee in charge of driving Whistler's cultural plan (more on that next week). She also represents Whistler's accommodation sector on the Alliance for Cultural Tourism, which is ensuring the place-based strategy outlined in the Thorne report unfolds as it should, and she teaches cultural tourism at Capilano University.
"So cultural tourism is looking at each of those components — the arts, the nature, the sports — that is unique only to Whistler because it can't exist in that same way anywhere else..."
"That's the beauty of cultural tourism. It's not people coming for one particular monument or activity, or anything like that — it's people coming because of what we love and have already found."
Authenticity, like small "c" culture itself, means different things to different people and at Whistler it comes through in many ways.
"I think to a certain extent that that authentic Whistler vibe is being captured in the Olympic plaza," says Wilhelm-Mortenson. "You go out there on a sunny afternoon and see a lot of people just sitting on blankets on the lawn, there are kids playing in the park — people just hanging out and enjoying being in that spot."
Then there's Function Junction with its down-to-earth atmosphere whose frisson is part industrial, part funk; what's happening over on Alta Lake Road, where Stephen Vogler has positioned his new artist-run centre called The Point; and what goes down with the live music and good times at Kevin Wood's and Martini Bart's Alpine Café in Alpine Meadows.
For people like Wilhelm-Morden and others who know Whistler inside-out, place-based cultural tourism with its roots in authenticity is really nothing new.
It certainly doesn't mean Whistler is turning it's back on what — or perhaps that's better stated as "who" it is — and where it's come from. Quite the contrary. It means
embracing all of the above more than ever, and identifying then encouraging ways to heighten it in this unique community and resort, which is and has always been, much like any good creative project, a work in progress.
Think of it as adding more soul to its heart. All with a nod to driving its one and only economic engine — tourism.
"Whistler was created to a certain degree as a mountain Mecca, which attracts sport activities such as skiing and mountain biking, so that certainly is our core that's made us successful. It's what has grown our profile on the world-wide stage and increased our global awareness as a year-round destination when it comes to our summer and winter offerings," says Barrett Fisher, president and CEO of Tourism Whistler, the agency responsible for marketing Whistler as a destination in the very competitive world of tourism.
"But when we look at how to continue to evolve and how to continue to ensure we are successful — and all those things I just described are really the heart of who Whistler is — ... bringing out our cultural roots is what place-based cultural tourism is all about.
"For the record, I don't think place-based cultural tourism is new. It certainly got captured in the Steven Thorne report, but really that's what [tourism] marketing tries to do. Whether we try to promote skiing or other things, it's about creating the flavor or the personality of the place, about how we position the resort. So it's not just our hard assets as much as it is the spirit of Whistler and what makes all the threads of who we are come together to be this more in-depth tapestry of the resort-wide and community experience... It means all the things that come together that create the genuine Whistler."
SO WHAT KIND OF PERSONALITY DOES THE REAL WHISTLER HAVE?
Part of Tourism Whistler's mandate is doing research that provides insights from customers regarding the brand of Whistler — something Fisher likes to refer to as "personality."
"The brand is more than just your laundry list of key assets and key events," she says. "It reflects your cultural roots, your approach, your lifestyle, your people, your way of life, your way of being, your values, attitudes — all of that stuff."
So what's Whistler's genuine, authentic personality? There are two components to that. From the perspective of product assets, Whistler is world-class and recognized for its natural beauty. But when you get down into the personality, Whistler is seen as being adventurous, youthful, genuine, down-to-earth and vibrant, she says.
"We refer to our vibe and energy as a destination, and it's not a marketing term we would use, but there is this energy to the place because when you come here it's like anything is possible, all the opportunities are here.
"It's this vibe, this excitement, this energy, this youthful exuberance where it doesn't matter if you are 7, 17, 37 or 77."
Very specific research turns up descriptors of the various visitor segments like "adventure seekers", "independent explorers", "family adventurers" — people looking to come to the mountains and share their passion for the mountains with others who have that same verve for life.
All of which bodes well for the development of cultural tourism as a strategy for sustaining Whistler. For what's culture — from the Latin "cultura" meaning "growing, cultivating" — if not a constantly changing, seeking, evolving endeavour itself, often with much "adventure", "exploration" and "risk-taking" involved.
WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE IS GOOD FOR THE GANDER
One of the many factors about cultural tourism that bodes well for Whistler is that while it is relatively new, interest in it is sky-rocketing, according to Colpitts.
"People are actively seeking it out as a form of travel," she says. "They're coming not just for an activity, they're coming because they want the entire experience. How many times do they say, I want to go where the locals go, I want to eat where the locals eat, I want to have that experience.
"If you're well-presented in cultural tourism, then you're honing in on what the locals love and why they are there, and what makes them a part of Whistler."
The recently released Cultural and Heritage Tourism Handbook, put out by a joint Canadian federal, provincial and territorial ministers' table on culture and heritage, states: "Today's successful destinations — whether urban or rural, large or small — have earned attention from their target markets by paying attention to their needs and wants, and providing what these markets are looking for."
So if tourists want "local" you give them "local." As a case in point, witness The Whistler Insiders, the addition to Tourism Whistler's website mentioned earlier that locals can appreciate as much as visitors — and it's just the start of changes slated for Whistler's marketing.
As to what motivates cultural tourists, while it's safe to say it's a variety of factors, research shows respondents' most favourable impressions align with the above. In one survey, the ATLAS Cultural Tourism Project done by TRAM (Tourism Research and Marketing) out of London, England, the most favourable impression cultural tourists noted after their visit was that they liked "the atmosphere of this place."
The ATLAS Project also revealed another interesting point: what for years has traditionally been considered the classic motivator for the classic cultural tourist, namely "learning," was relegated to last place, a reflection, apparently, of our post-modern world.
As for the demographics of cultural tourists, the ATLAS survey showed nearly 70 per cent of those surveyed had some form of degree; an equal number were professionals or managers, which means higher income brackets — all in all, an attractive market segment for Whistler to pursue given the negative factors impacting some of its traditional draws, such as aging baby boomers who don't tend to ski or mountain bike as often as they used to, and changing climatic regimes that can impact snow- and rainfall.
Another interesting nugget that bodes well for the cultural tourism path Whistler has embarked on comes from Tourism Whistler. Eighteen per cent of all summer visitors in 2011 attended a concert or event at Whistler Olympic Plaza. Those who did so were significantly more satisfied with their overall Whistler experience, and significantly more likely to recommend Whistler to their friends or family, than those who did not.
A compelling dimension to this whole equation is that in Whistler, the line between locals and visitors is so blurred in more ways than one, that when it comes to cultural tourism, what's good for the goose is also good for the gander.
"One of the unique things about Whistler is that we do integrate community with our tourists," says Barrett. "You don't go in and just do a tourist experience. The community is integrated into that, whether it's a young snowboarder in the village having a beer or a wealthy tourist in blue jeans at a high-end restaurant with their dog tied up outside and they came on a mountain bike."
Whistler's mayor and the arts council's executive director also see cultural tourism as inextricably woven into the world of the visitor as it is to the local community, and adding to both in powerful, meaningful ways.
"Cultural tourism means different things," says Wilhelm-Morden. "In my role as mayor, it means an opportunity to expand our offerings and thereby expand our visitor base through culture — it's diversification that will be improving our economy."
"As an individual member of the community, to emphasize cultural tourism and expand culture means to enrich the community we live in, which is a nice by-product — a lovely by-product — of the economics."
Says Niedermayer, "It's all about really understanding the end goal: to build more long-term tourism; to build more programs that are here throughout the year; to create a group of people who live and work here as artists who create that cultural tourism hum-m-m-m all the time and that you trust to be as professional as the guys you are bringing in so you aren't always importing culture."
Next week we'll look at how to create a cultural tourism experience that says "Whistler" loud and proud — the players, the pitfalls to avoid, the strengths to play up. And where the new cultural plan — and you — fit in.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist and plain language specialist who founded the Whistler Arts Council 30 years ago. She has spent the last 14 years working part-time on a degree in visual fine arts at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and plans on graduating before she is 70.
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