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Visits to Whistler’s parks were up 35% from last summer, and 77% from 2019

Despite local backlash, pay parking to continue in major parks next summer
summer exp update by BD 28.33
The spike in visitation to Whistler parks this summer can be mainly attributed to visitors from the Lower Mainland, B.C. and elsewhere in Canada, according to the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

Staff at the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) reported to mayor and council last week on the 2021 Summer Experience Plan, and in what should come as no surprise to anyone who frequented our local parks this year, demand was way up. 

Visitation to Whistler’s parks increased 35 per cent when compared to last summer, and was up a whopping 77 per cent compared to the same period in 2019, a continuation of a years-long bump that was only accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“At the culmination of 2020, we were looking back at a summer when we experienced unprecedented levels of visitation,” explained general manager of resort experience Jessie Gresley-Jones at the Nov. 16 council meeting. 

“We needed to really protect our infrastructure and our park assets. We knew there were problems in 2020 and if those were to reoccur and even worsen, our park system would not be able to handle those pressures.” 

Virtually all of the spike in usage can be attributed to visitors from the Lower Mainland, B.C. and elsewhere in Canada, with visitation to local parks from U.S. and other international visitors down 80 per cent, while visitation from local residents remained static. 

“I think there was perhaps the perception that our parks were going to be very busy so perhaps going to those parks on busy days was not seen as optimal,” Gresley-Jones said of the local trend. “But ultimately that’s anecdotal and perhaps not concrete evidence.” 

This summer also saw the introduction of pay parking in four of Whistler’s major parks, part of a pilot project aimed at managing increased demand, funding park upkeep and taking action on climate by encouraging alternate modes of travel. The decision proved to be a controversial one amongst locals, with an online petition calling for a locals’ parking pass that would allow residents to park for free having reached more than 2,000 signatures at press time. 

Given the 170 pay parking stalls were often at 85-per-cent capacity or higher, and the roughly $122,000 in revenue generated from pay parking covered the combined costs for the Rainbow Park shuttle and bike valet service at Rainbow and Lost Lake parks, staff recommended that pay parking in local parks continue into next summer. 

“Having a locals’ pass or free weekday parking would have negative impacts,” noted manager of resort parks planning Martin Pardoe. “It would reduce the parking availability at peak times, and it would not guarantee parking availability to a passholder because there is a limited number of stalls, it would not incentivize more sustainable transportation options that are outlined in our [Official Community Plan] and our Climate Action Big Moves Strategy … and it would undermine funding for our preferred transportation modes, the shuttle and bike valet services.” 

Staff also compared the pilot project to parking programs in place at parks in Canmore, Banff and Tofino, and found the rate of $2 an hour to be lower than all three jurisdictions, and the hours in which pay parking was in effect, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., to be shorter. Pay parking is also in effect year-round at those destinations compared to just three months in Whistler. (It should be noted, however, that Tofino launched a free pass for locals and neighbouring First Nations this summer, although a still-undetermined fee will be introduced in 2022.) 

Both the Rainbow Park shuttle and bike valet service proved popular this summer, with an average of 180 users a day taking the shuttle and 51 a day using the valet service available at Olympic Plaza, Lost Lake, and Rainbow Park. In both instances, usage was heavily weighted towards visitors rather than locals. 

“So clearly there is room for some local improvement there,” Pardoe said. 

Pay parking, as well as efforts to improve accessibility and clarity on where drivers could and could not park both in lots and on residential streets, translated into fewer complaints and tickets issued by Bylaw Services, according to the report. 

“The additional benefit was that staff had other efficiencies gained because they weren’t managing parking as intensely as they have in past years, so they could look at other issues in the community,” noted Pardoe. 

The RMOW’s Park Eats program was also introduced this summer, which welcomed food vendors and food delivery to several local parks. Staff recommended expanding the program in 2022. 

Staff also recommended continuing a waste management program with local environmental group, the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), which provided public education and oversight of proper waste disposal in some resort parks. On days when AWARE staff was on-hand, Pardoe said there was “significant reduction in the amount of waste going to landfill,” including almost double the amount of compost collected and more than double the amount of material that was recycled.   

On the events side, the RMOW noted that local engagement in participatory events in Whistler’s parks was less than anticipated last summer, which resulted in animation locations being adjusted due to weather and visitor volumes. “We realize that in-resort marketing strategy and design is essential for program success,” Pardoe said. 

In all, the summer plan cost approximately $614,000, the majority of which was covered by Resort Municipality Initiative funds ($395,000). The remainder was covered by the pay parking pilot project ($122,000), the Municipal and Regional District Tax ($54,000), and municipal general reserves ($43,000). 

“The intent was really for progress, not perfection,” Gresley-Jones said of the plan. “We knew that not everything was going to be perfect, but we knew that we had to do something to get through the summer.” 

Between COVID-19 and ever-changing travel and health guidelines, staffing shortages, and supply chain disruptions, RMOW staff developed and implemented its Summer Experience Plan “with a huge amount of uncertainty over the course of the summer, and even in the spring when we commenced this planning work,” Gresley-Jones said. 

“We really had little advance knowledge of what conditions could be in the summer, we had considerable collaboration and coordination among all of the RMOW departments and our partner organizations, and we had ongoing adaptation as condition evolved and as labour and material shortages actually became significant factors in our planning and execution.”

View the full report at whistler.ca.

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