The golden decade of tourism opportunity

"We are building toward a golden decade of tourism opportunity," Premier Gordon Campbell announced this week while introducing plans to implement a strategy for resort development across B.C.

Presumably the premier was suggesting that this golden decade would see some new resort development, rather than be another decade of spending gold, as Al Raine and the Jumbo Creek proponents have had to endure to get environmental approval from the province. And environmental approval is just the first step in the process; no proponent of a brand new ski resort in B.C. has reached the end of the process since Blackcomb opened in 1980.

How many more new resorts B.C. needs and who would fill them is another question, one that was indirectly tackled by Tourism Whistler and its members last week. In a three and a half hour blood letting session Tourism Whistler members were presented with the cold, hard tourism facts for the last year or so and invited to air their complaints and suggestions. Among the issues:

• 35 per cent of visitors who completed a Tourism Whistler survey said they would not return to Whistler because it was too expensive;

• The Ski Club of Great Britain reported that prices were ridiculously high;

• Whistler experienced a 16.7 per cent decline in U.S. visitors last season;

• A lack of family-friendly activities was an issue with many people;

• A lack of front-desk service, due to multiple property managers in condo-hotels, was an issue.

Some of the issues are as much about perception as reality, but in tourism as in politics, perception often is reality. Diana Lyons of the Delta Village Suites brought a telling insight: Whistler doesn’t Google very well with terms like "budget", "moderate" and "affordable hotels".

"I know we’ve got three or four levels of accommodation in Whistler, we’re just not doing a very good job of going to the market with it," Lyons said later.

The message this year, if you haven’t already heard, is "value". Whistler’s time as the new kid on the block, and all the attention that a new discovery warrants, expired several years ago. After a golden decade – or more – of growth in virtually every measurable term Whistler became the fox after many years as a hound. Remaining ahead of the pack was always going to be more difficult than the pursuit, but it was exacerbated by the events and economic malaise of the last three years.

Recognizing the problem, as Tourism Whistler did with last week’s meeting, is the first step. But it takes more than a meeting. Lyons, again, found the heart of the matter with her comment: "And the one thing about this town is that we need to pull together to turn it around and I get frustrated when I see individuals that aren’t focused on the positives because they’re ignoring the issues."

The concept that everyone here is in this experiment called Whistler together goes back to the early days of the village and the conscious decision to become an international resort. It was more easily understood then, because Whistler was a much smaller place and world-wide recognition was many years away.

In Whistler’s darkest days in 1982, with the recession killing all investment in Whistler, the Whistler Village Land Company bankrupt and owing $8 million, the Royal Bank demanding payment and the dominant image of the village being rebar sticking out of unfinished foundations, plumber Arpi Beleznai expressed his frustrations in a letter to the editor. He wasn’t working anyway, Beleznai wrote, so he was offering his services for free to help finish the Resort Centre, which later became the conference centre. Beleznai’s letter was supported by several more with similar offers in the following weeks. Finishing the Resort Centre was seen as a key to getting Whistler off the ground as an international resort, and the community – small as it was at the time – recognized the challenge could only be met if everyone worked together.

In truth, it wasn’t local people who went to work and finished the Resort Centre in a community barn-raising fashion, it was a $21 million loan from the provincial government that got it done. But just as important as the money was the understanding that Whistler’s success depended on everyone working together. No one, at that time, was cashing in on the resort’s success; everyone had to contribute.


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