Winning at tourism often not in our control 

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Tourism is the single largest non-government economic sector in the world (a US$625-billion industry) and the most important economic activity for several local economies worldwide.

News about tourism and the global indicators that affect it are closely followed by Pique — after all, ours is a town that is reliant on tourism no matter how much we talk about a diversified economy.

In Whistler's case the diversification is really about tourism offerings in all seasons, not living in a place that has multiple economies.

So there is little wonder that we navel gaze on the issue.

This week the headlines catching tourism watchers interest are about the Zika virus — a more-than-pesky, tropical-loving, mosquito-borne virus that is being linked to serious birth defects. Researchers also think Zika can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, a very rare neurological syndrome that can cause paralysis.

The virus was discovered in a monkey in 1947 in the Zika Forest in Uganda. Since then it has been considered mild compared to its killer cousins: yellow fever, dengue, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis. Until 2013, there was no evidence Zika had ever hospitalized anyone.

Once caught the virus can also be spread by those infected through sex, blood and even urine.

If you are a tourism operator in any of the close to 30 countries currently affected — and let's be honest the number of countries is going to go up — this is a "worst-nightmare" scenario (go to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) for a current list of affected countries

Remember Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)? Remember Ebola and even Mad Cow in the U.K.?

All had devastating impacts on tourism.

The outbreak of SARS in 2003 is estimated to have caused over $50 billion-worth of damage to the global economy, despite infecting only about 8,000 people and causing fewer than 800 deaths. reported that half of operators experienced a staggering 20-to 70-per-cent decrease in bookings due to Ebola.

This is because panic and confusion can be as disruptive as the disease itself. After all one of the first casualties of any epidemic is tourism.

For a country like Brazil, which has been in the news for the seriousness of its Zika outbreak, it couldn't come at a worse time.

Deep in recession, with soaring unemployment and multiple corruption scandals, Brazil needs all the tourist dollars it can get.

The Rio Carnival, which just ended, brought in a million tourists and US$782 million in revenues for the city last year. And the Olympics are set to open in less than 200 days.

Recent headlines are all about Olympic athletes choosing to drop out of the Games rather than risk infection by Zika.

Imagine the impact on Whistler if something similar had happened in 2010 when we hosted the Games.

Said the UN World Tourism Organization this week about Zika: "As per the impact on tourism, it is too early to make any impact assessment considering the evolving nature of the situation.

"It is important is to ensure quick and transparent information is provided to travellers as a precautionary measure and to avoid misinterpretations about the situation."

And that is the key to survival when tourist destinations are hit by misfortune — transparency.

If we have bad weather, bad snow or closed highways, the best course of action is to tell the traveller and get on with addressing the issues where we can. Pretending things are "perfect" when they are not doesn't work in today's tourism world.

Sure there were plenty of disgruntled skiers and boarders on Saturday, Feb.6, when weather and technical issues prevented them from getting to the 60 centimetres of fresh powder quickly, but constant Twitter updates and on- mountain social media sharing meant those on the hill knew what was going on and there is no doubt that helped.

Whistler may not have to contend with Zika currently, but consider the long-term impacts we might be dealing with as climate change settles into mountain culture — a clear message to travellers will be key to survival.

Of course the vagaries of tourism can also bring amazing success. Just look at how busy Whistler is thanks to our limping loonie — month-over-month gains in U.S. visitors.

Even the amazing weather last summer impacted the tourism numbers we saw.

Today's travellers have a host of ways of getting information — staying competitive means celebrating the positive but also facing up to the challenges and treating our guests as partners not prey.


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