While walking around the village this holiday season, Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden couldn't help but notice the diversity of languages she overheard. There was plenty of Spanish, the occasional conversation in Italian and a host of Eastern European languages she didn't immediately recognize — a clear sign of Whistler's growing international appeal.
"It really tells you loud and clear that people were coming from all over the world," she said.
You didn't have to look very far to see just how busy the resort was over the holidays: restaurants were packed; parking lots clogged and lineups for the Village Gondola snaked around the block by 8 a.m. While Tourism Whistler didn't have any figures confirmed, room night bookings for the month of December paced ahead of the last two years, and will "most likely" exceed 2011, the busiest December on record.
"It was over the top, that's a good way to describe it," Scandinave Spa manager Doug DeYagher said of business throughout December.
DeYagher estimated sales at the luxury spa, which did up to 195 massages a day on weekends, were up 30 per cent over last year. "We were seeing numbers we haven't seen before," he added, attributing Whistler's continued growth after a string of record-setting months to a "perfect storm" of factors: excellent weather conditions, a weak Canadian dollar and strong pre-bookings. By Nov. 15, Tourism Whistler had already secured 60 per cent of the resort's winter bookings, according to communications manager Patricia Westerholm.
By most accounts, business was booming across the resort. At village ski shop Fanatyk Co., buyer Paul Macki said there was a "steady stream" of walk-in and online bookings on par with the store's historical highs.
"We had people booking appointments steady," he said. "We basically had no openings to see any of our boot fitters for most of the holidays."
Local tour operators stayed busy as well. The Adventure Group (TAG), which offers ziplining, snowshoe and tasting tours, helicopter sightseeing and bungee jumping, enjoyed a "fantastic" December for all of the company's core products, said marketing manager Jason Langlois.
"It was great to see such a strong start to winter. We will continue our snow dances and hope for the favourable conditions to stick," he wrote in an email, adding that TAG saw a "noticeable increase" in visitors from the U.S. and Mexico.
Like the mayor, many local businesses observed a significant rise in visitors from some of Whistler's less traditional destination markets.
"This Christmas period we have a really interesting mix of international visitors," said Norm Mastalir, GM of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. "Of note this year that's new, (are the) number of Russian visitors, Mexican visitors, South American visitors, along with the usual U.K., German (and) Australians. So definitely some new markets that are starting to bring some fairly significant numbers of people."
With that added diversity, many resort guests are increasingly looking for winter activities that fall outside of the Whistler's traditional draw of skiing and snowboarding, Mastalir said. And while the mountain clearly remains the resort's No. 1 economic driver, Westerholm said visitors are "absolutely looking for different activities to round out their experience."
Apparently a considerable number of guests found the off-mountain activities they were looking for this year in the form of the Resort Municipality of Whistler's family-friendly slate of programming. An average of 400 people a day streamed through the municipality's Family Après events, while 750 took to the Olympic Plaza rink for some skating. Roughly 1,700 wristbands were sold to the Whistler Presents New Year's Eve festivities, while an estimated 3,000 watched the last Fire & Ice Show of 2015.
Providing family-friendly alternatives to skiing will be essential in the years to come, believes Bounce Academy manager Jason Gauthier.
"A lot of people don't live in ski towns and they don't have the legs for it, so if they're in town for (a week), are they going to ski seven days? With the price of the mountain being in my opinion quite high, they're going to be looking for all these different activities," he said.
Of course, with Whistler's continued popularity, there will inevitably be some growing pains.
"Certainly traffic, getting in and around the village (was a challenge)," noted Wilhelm-Morden. "We've also got to have some discussions on how the Marketplace parking lot needs be managed during the busy period. I think there was some frustration there."
Tourism Whistler expects to have official occupancy rates for the month of December available later this month.
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