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Whistler hopes restricting travel will save summer

As businesses deal with another hit to the bottom line, tourism leaders hopeful move will shift traveller behaviour 
N-Travel Restrictions 28.16 RONTECH2000 : GETTY IMAGES
Whistler hotels have begun cancelling non-essential bookings through the May long weekend, a move tourism leaders say is tough but necessary to save Whistler's summer.

As local tourism leaders await further details on an upcoming provincial order that would formally restrict non-essential travel in B.C., they say the move is a tough but necessary one that will hopefully preserve Whistler’s summer. 

“To be honest, we support the move,” said Tourism Whistler (TW) president and CEO Barrett Fisher. “We need to get the virus under control and if it means that we basically cancel our remaining reservations in the April and May period, which in turn will allow us to save our summer … that certainly is our focus.” 

In what was arguably B.C.’s biggest step towards curbing non-essential travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began, on Monday, April 19, Premier John Horgan announced new restrictions through the May long weekend to ensure British Columbians stay within their home health region. An official order under the Emergency Program Act is expected Friday, which will allow police to enforce the measures through roadside checkpoints. 

Tourism operators and campsites have also been cancelling existing bookings through the May long weekend. For Tourism Whistler, local hotels, and vacation rental sites, that means following up with guests individually—something they were already doing throughout the pandemic to advise of COVID-19 health measures—to determine if they have a valid reason for travelling. 

“The recent travel advisory will have impacts for all the accommodation in Whistler, but it will be interesting to see who prepared and took the previous travel precautions as the writing on the wall for what was coming,” said Matt Hick, CEO of vacation rental booking site, alluraDirect, in an email. “Companies that committed to the position that safety is more important than occupancy percentages, assumed travel was off the table until at least mid-to-late summer—for these companies that planned for this scenario, including alluraDirect, [they] are prepared for this latest travel advisory and will take it in stride.” 

TW is still awaiting word from the province on who exactly is permitted to travel to Whistler, after Horgan specifically noted Monday that Vancouverites, for instance, should not be coming to Whistler, despite being in the same health authority. 

Pique emailed the public safety ministry for clarity and was told more details would be coming later this week. On Wednesday, April 21 Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth told reporters in a press briefing that the new provincewide orders restricting recreational travel in the province will not apply to people moving between the Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and Fraser Health Authority regions.

"In terms of what can best be described as a counter-attack kind of roadblock, they absolutely will not be set up in places such as Boundary Road or Fraser. The goal is to discourage recreational travel outside of health authorities," he said. 

For a hotel sector that had already seen room-night bookings in April dwindle to single digits, the cancellations don’t represent a significant number of bookings, said Saad Hasan, president of the Hotel Association of Whistler. 

“The essence of yesterday’s announcement that we, all of us, should not be travelling outside of our immediate communities, I think it was as much for the travellers as it was for the hotels,” he said. “Yes, the hotels have been communicating this message since the beginning, but reinforcing that by saying there may be random police audits, I think will probably put more emphasis on these restrictions.” 

Although in no way comparable to Whistler’s pandemic year, Hasan said the spring shoulder season has historically been a slower period when local hotels complete necessary upgrades and maintenance work, which lessens the sting of Monday’s announcement somewhat. 

But for Whistler’s small businesses, particularly those in front-facing industries, the latest measures, including last week’s extension of the indoor dining ban, come as another blow in an already devastating year. 

“All closures have a significant impact on the community; there’s no doubt about that. What that significant impact might be, we’re not sure,” said Melissa Pace, CEO of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce. 

The chamber got an early gauge of the impact at its weekly advocacy meeting on Tuesday. Pace said she heard from a handful of restauranteurs without patio space who have had to temporarily close and lay off staff. Other businesses reported staff accommodations sitting empty. 

“We hope we can get back to a normal business flow soon so we can get that labour back and we can fill those beds,” she added. 

It speaks to a wider long-term problem facing Whistler’s business sector: the mass exodus of workers looking for greener pastures. 

“A lot of the labour is leaving because of the affordability issue we have here in the community, so if they are not going to work and are relying on very little income, they will move to a community that is more affordable,” Pace said, adding that recruitment is something the chamber and its advocacy committee has been working on. 

It’s the delicate balance between physical and economic health that vacation hotspots the world over have had to strike, and one that TW had been promoting even before the pandemic hit as Whistler strove to curb the effects of overtourism.  

“Tourism Whistler, prior to the pandemic, had been talking about balanced visitation, so even when visitation comes back, our goal will be to encourage longer length stays; to encourage people to come up in the midweek so it’s not just a bottleneck on weekends; to be working on moving people around the resort so there is dispersion,” she said.

 “Will there be pent-up demand for tourism? I’m sure that there will be. And will the businesses be wanting to welcome tourism back? Yes, they definitely will be, but it all has to be balanced.” 

The latest case numbers for Whistler, released after press deadline Wednesday, April 21, report that between April 12 and 18 the resort had 72 new cases—a significant drop. The week prior (April 6 to April11), VCH identified 179 new cases of COVID-19 in Whistler. From Jan. 1 to April 18, there were 1,759 cases recorded in the Whistler community; of these, 1,688 individuals have recovered.

This story has been updated since publication.