HST arrives quietly in Whistler 

Sales up this week despite new changes to tax laws, say business owners

It's too soon to tell. But by the ring of cash registers throughout the village last weekend, the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) has not yet spelled disaster for businesses in Whistler.

Most restaurants and shops reported good sales over the July 1-5 long weekend, despite the higher tax point on some items. Of course, several owners also pointed out that the weekend coincided with Canada Day and the American Independence Day, which are traditionally high tourist times in the resort municipality.

"It was pretty busy," said Kristi West, assistant manager at Ingrid's, located in the centre of Whistler Village, when asked Friday afternoon how the first day of HST transpired for her cafe.

"No one said anything. There were no big dramas. We were expecting some people to complain a little bit about the increased price, but so far, so great."

Lawrence Black, owner of Black's Pub & Restaurant, sang a similar tune about the tax.

"Sales were up over last year," said Black, looking through the numbers from his restaurant near the base of Whistler Mountain. "I don't remember what the weather was last year, but I suspect it was better than what we had this year."

He said some American customers who have been visiting Whistler over the years commented on the tax - asking "What is that?" And other out-of-province travellers thought it was a hospitality or gratitude tax. But beyond the occasional remark, little fanfare was made over the new charges.

"I think for small restaurants in the city, it will have an impact," said Black. "For people coming to Whistler, it is different."

The HST fuses the provincial sales tax (PST) with the federal Goods and Services Tax (GST) into a 12 per cent tax.

The most visible impact of the tax is the additional seven per cent charge to services, which unlike goods, have largely been exempt from the PST.

For example, as of July 1, things like restaurant meals, movies, haircuts, dry cleaning services, gym memberships, lift tickets, green fees, tourist and professional services like accountants and masseuses saw a seven per cent tax jump.

But the HST doesn't affect books, diapers, children's clothing, feminine products or gasoline and diesel fuel for cars.

Alcohol served at restaurants also is now only subject to a 12 per cent tax. Previously it was subject to a 15 per cent tax.

"Everyone from the province was definitely aware that it was going to happen and prepared themselves for it, and they knew it was going to be here," said Wayne Katz, owner of Zog's Dogs, Gone Bakery and Moguls.  "It didn't stop them from doing what they normally do."

Added David Udow, owner of Ziptrek Ecotours: "Overall, the HST has been pretty good. We just went through a major software upgrade to accommodate all the issues related to it, and it has gone reasonably well."

Udow said some customers made minor comments about the price but most realize that the government is responsible, not businesses, for the change.

But Russ Long from alternative shop Katmandu Bike and Boards said the tax is noticeable.

He used to absorb the tax himself for a $5 bike tube, but now that the HST brings the total up to $5.60, he can't do that anymore.

"Everything I purchase that I used to just pay GST on, now I am paying 12 per cent on," explained Russ. "Everything on my wall is costing me seven per cent more until I have sold it and recovered it."

Over at Solarice Wellness Spa, Emily Simmons said that while her company has not noticed any drop in business because of the HST, they have also been offering many specials and discounts to encourage people to come.

Without those incentives, Solarice may have really been hurting with the HST, she said.

"For the most part, we haven't seen a drop in business, just because people do realize the benefits of investing in wellness and taking good care of themselves," she said. "But we also are pushing our specials and discounts, so maybe that is why we are not seeing it as bad as other places."

Despite its quiet arrival in Whistler, unease over the controversial HST is apparent among businesses. Some owners and managers Pique Newsmagazine contacted this weekend were reluctant to comment and said they did not want their company name to appear in any article about the tax.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Whistler Blackcomb declined comment, saying it was "far too early to tell" what the impact will be.


-With files from Jesse Ferreras




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