Updated EPI report shows 'astounding' financial growth 

Whistler is doing big business, but tough challenges lie ahead

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE/COURTESY OF TOURISM WHISTLER - Festive Days Whistler's Festivals, Events and Animation program, boosted by provincial RMI funds, has helped drive financial growth in the resort in recent years. Pictured here is the Whistler Children's Festival.
  • PHOTO by Mike Crane/courtesy of Tourism Whistler
  • Festive Days Whistler's Festivals, Events and Animation program, boosted by provincial RMI funds, has helped drive financial growth in the resort in recent years. Pictured here is the Whistler Children's Festival.

It has been four years since the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) launched its first Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) report, and the community's financial fortunes have only solidified over time, according to an update presented to council on July 12.

The key numbers: Whistler now has a Gross Domestic Product of $1.53 billion per year, representing annual growth of 5.6 per cent since the 2012 report.

Whistler generates $500 million every year ($1.37 million every day) in tax revenue for federal, provincial and municipal coffers, and the resort is responsible for about 25 per cent of the entire annual tourism export revenue of B.C., up from 21.5 per cent in 2012.

The average destination visitor spends $265 per day in Whistler, while the average regional visitor spends $125 per day.

There are 15,051 people employed in the resort — up 10 per cent from 2012 — and an average of 2.7 million unique visitors every year (a growth rate of 2.2 per cent every year).

"These are astounding growth numbers," said chief administrative officer Mike Furey in an interview ahead of the meeting.

The numbers are certainly impressive, and serve as proof in part that Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding is a good investment for the provincial government.

"The RMI funds have been instrumental in contributing to the growth that this document is showing over the last number of years," Furey said.

"It's sort of hard to put a number on it, given the variety of factors like the Canadian dollar and other things, but I think I would definitely attribute a lot of the growth in the summer to the (Festivals, Events and Animation) program."

Another big boon has been the burgeoning conference business — Furey credits Tourism Whistler (TW) for helping attract new business to the conference centre.

But it's not just TW — the EPI Committee is also made up of representatives from Whistler Blackcomb, the Hotel Association of Whistler and the Whistler Chamber, as well as a council-appointed community member.

"We play a coordinating role, and we're certainly one of the larger organizations that are investing time and energy into it, but it's not just us," said RMOW manager of special projects Ted Battiston, who Furey credits with taking the lead on the report.

"That coordination is a really big part of why it's been successful."

But with continued growth have come some very real challenges, now starting to show themselves on the highway to Whistler and in the increasing numbers of people seeking help through the Whistler Community Services Society — or leaving town altogether.

"We definitely have to address some big challenges like traffic, we have to address some big challenges like climate change, and I think there's definitely room to make progress on those in a substantive way," Furey said.

"(There's also) the ongoing challenge of housing and affordability, and those are ones we're working on as well... it's not really a time where we can just go, 'yeah, let's just sort of coast for awhile.' I think we need to really stay on it."

The report provides 45 recommended actions spread across 12 strategies and organized into four focus areas — the place, the people, our guests and our partners.

The recommendations span everything from protecting and enhancing access to affordable living to training and retaining a strong workforce, and in many cases they're connected.

"The work that the planning department is doing on vacation rentals rolls into the affordability challenges and so on and so forth," Battiston said.

"Those are things that we've already just started on and will continue with as called for in the recommendations."

While the (metaphorical) sun is shining right now, Furey said it would be naïve to assume the good times will keep on rolling forever. Will Whistler be ready to withstand the inevitable downturn, whenever it may arrive?

"We have been preparing for that, and looking at how we retain our economic resilience going forward," Furey said.

The hope is that new resort offerings such as Whistler Blackcomb Renaissance, the Audain Art Museum and the Cultural Connector will help insulate Whistler in the coming years.

There are many more facts and figures included in the 84-page report, which will be posted to www.whistler.ca/EPI.

"In all the years I've been on council, going back to 1984, I'd be hard pressed to find a report which is as influential and informative as this report is," Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said at the meeting.

"So really, really excellent work."

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