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Whistler modelling projects ‘unconstrained’ growth in visitation

RMOW Balance Model seeks a sustainable future for the resort
n-summer exp update by BD 28.33
The RMOW's new Balance Model aims to get a handle on growth and create a sustainable future for the resort.

Whistler’s new Official Community Plan (OCP) is in place at long last, complete with a new vision statement.

At a high level, the statement appears simple: that Whistler is a place where community thrives, nature is protected and guests are inspired.

But dig a little deeper, and you begin to see the stress points where conflict might arise.

The OCP, formally adopted in June 2020, states that the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) must strive to achieve and maintain “comfortable, balanced resort and community capacity,” while implementing a “sustainable, tourism-based economy” and also “protecting the natural environment and reinforcing community character.”

Laudable goals, to be sure, but in all likelihood easier said than accomplished.

One need only look to the explosion in visitation to Whistler’s parks in recent years—in some ways a microcosm of the issues the resort currently faces.

According to the RMOW, visits to local parks were up 35 per cent in 2021 compared to 2020—and a whopping 77 per cent over 2019.

Is that level of visitation comfortable or balanced? Is it sustainable? Does it protect the natural environment?

These are some of the big questions now being probed by the RMOW’s Strategic Planning Committee (SPC), launched in the wake of the 2018 municipal election.

Balancing act

Though COVID-19 and the 2021 cyber security incident diverted some resources, the SPC has been exploring these questions since well before the pandemic, said manager of economic development and tourism recovery Toni Metcalf, in presenting the SPC’s new Balance Model to Whistler’s Committee of the Whole on Dec. 21.

“[Prior to COVID] we had a number of experiences and perspectives that may have suggested Whistler was nearing its carrying capacity,” Metcalf said. “The Balance Model is intended to use data to investigate these perspectives and enable strategic discussions for proactive management.”

As it relates to the four “pillars” of Whistler’s vision—community, environment, tourism economy and sense of place—the Balance Model aims to understand potential “tradeoffs,” identify constraints, and provide insights to strategy in regards to achieving sustainable balance into the future. 

The Balance Model looks at Whistler’s current reality, while asking some key questions, Metcalf said.

What is the current reality?

In short, Whistler has morphed into a true four-season destination; economic growth has been rapid in recent years; residents are feeling the pressures of increased visitation, and challenges with access and affordability; amenities and services may not have kept pace with development and population growth; climate action has been insufficient to meet community targets; and more emphasis is needed to protect Whistler’s natural environment.

“So part of the Balance Model is very much intended to logically and comprehensively assess a range of needs and the capacity of our infrastructure for the existing population,” Metcalf said. “As well as scenarios on how future population may evolve.”

Through its “quantifiable,” data-driven analysis, the Balance Model will explore some key questions, she added: where is Whistler’s capacity strained, or underutilized? How might population change, and what impacts will that have? What impact might Whistler Blackcomb’s Master Plan have? What tradeoffs may need to be intentionally considered? And how can officials use COVID to rebuild Whistler as a more sustainable tourism community?

The Balance Model initiative is made up of three key pieces of work, Metcalf added: a current state assessment (completed fall 2021); modelling of potential future scenarios (winter 2021-22) and strategies and actions in pursuit of Whistler’s vision (spring 2022).

Data driven

Much of the SPC’s work to date has been focused on data collection, and identifying trends and relationships that have brought Whistler to its current state.

The presentation to the Committee of the Whole included data on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to): passenger vehicle and building emissions; water use and waste disposal; housing availability, affordability and childcare; traffic congestion and public park space; and tourist accommodations, commercial space and skier visits (find it in full at whistler.ca/balancemodel).

In 2019, Whistler was seeing 20,000 visitors per day on average, said strategy analyst Rebecca Zalmanovitz—and visitation is intricately linked with stats related to residents.

“Historically, they trend together, and that really makes sense because increased visitation increases demand for services, amenities, all sorts of things,” Zalmanovitz said. “Which increases demand for labour, [and] increased demand for labour means more people are living locally and working locally.”

Looking at historical trends, growth in several areas was stagnant prior to the 2010 Olympics.

With the transition of the Athletes’ Village into employee housing, homeownership saw a dramatic uptick, while the rental stock didn’t increase until more recently.

“Overall, our total residents, we’re seeing pretty close to 50-50 proportion of renters and homeowners,” Zalmanovitz said.

In collecting and segmenting data, RMOW staff looked at historical population trends in relation to various factors, or “influencers.”

“We looked at different macroeconomic indicators like GDP or foreign exchange rates—how would that impact visitation?” Zalmanovitz said.

“We looked at weather and snowfall; [and] we looked at average daily rates in hotels and resort offerings.”

Staff also looked at the population growth of different regions, which may provide the most telling insights about what’s in store for Whistler in the coming years.

Historically, both regional and destination visits to Whistler have grown in conjunction with growth in the population of the Lower Mainland, Zalmanovitz said.

”For every 100,000-person increase in the Lower Mainland population, we see an additional 400 daily visitors from within the region,” she said. “And based on Vancouver or the Lower Mainland’s historical growth, they’re tending to see [an additional] 30,000 to 40,000 people per year. So you might see this increase [in Whistler] every three to four years.”

Further, for every additional 1 million arrivals at YVR, Whistler has typically seen an additional 300 daily destination visitors.

And for every 1,000 daily visitors to the resort, an extra 600 workers are required to meet their needs, Zalmanovitz said.

“Based on our historical growth, this could happen every one to two years, or one to three years, to have this type of growth in our labour—and all of these people need accommodation amenities and services,” she said.

“So this is really kind of wrapping up what the balance model is—it’s looking at what’s driven growth historically, and how does this population growth impact our need for accommodation amenities and services, and how can we measure our performance?”

Next steps

Given the trend of the identified influencers, the RMOW projects “unconstrained growth” in both regional and destination visitors into 2040.

With that in mind, visitation levels to Whistler are subject to both accommodation and parking availability, and the projections are considered illustrative and for discussion, rather than representative of final modelling results.

But the projections provide valuable insight.

“The Balance Model is really meant to give us this bird’s eye view of Whistler overall, meaning it goes broad, but not necessarily deep,” Zalmanovitz said. “So we’ve got a great vantage point of Whistler overall, both from a strategic perspective and tactically, but there are limitations.”

Strategically, the broad view of potential visitation and population growth allows the RMOW to identify future priorities relating to the pillars of environment, community and economy.

“And then more specifically, on a more tactical level, we can identify potential challenges or tradeoffs in the future with our indicators—what’s coming in the next five years, what’s coming in the next 10 to 20 years, that type of thing,” Zalmanovitz said.

For example, the Balance Model can tell the RMOW what to expect in terms of visitation, and the related impacts to hotel occupancy, traffic and highway congestion, or pressure on food and beverage services, but it won’t identify specific solutions.

“Of course that would require much more detailed work,” Zalmanovitz said.

“So we look at our results of this Balance Model, and it initiates lots of interesting discussions and more detailed analysis for strategies and actions to meet the vision.”

With the “heavy lifting” of data collection and analysis complete, the next phase of the project—modelling potential future scenarios—will tap the community for input.

A survey will be posted online, followed by a broader community engagement process in the spring, “as we talk about what priorities are, and how we work through those tradeoffs that are going to be needed through social, environmental and economic challenges, and where do we actually try to balance those across the board,” Metcalf said.

Follow the process at whistler.ca/balancemodel