Whistler's business woes were well documented last week, locally and in Vancouver, but if it's any consolation, we are not alone.
The City of Aspen is putting $400,000 into helping the Aspen Skiing Company subsidize hosting the X Games over the next four years, the X Games being the biggest marketing boost Aspen has seen in years. The city is also working on a downtown revitalization plan. Last month Colorado Ski Country USA, the marketing arm of all Colorado ski areas, announced skier visits for the first period (Oct. 28-Dec. 31, 2003) were down about nine per cent from the same period last year.
Earlier this winter a study commissioned by Colorado ski areas found the state had lost 1.23 million destination skier visits over the last six years.
Interestingly, these random economic indicators come after record skier visits last winter in both Canada and the United States. The winter of 2002-03 produced generally good ski conditions all season, all across the continent. The suspicion is that the record skier visits were fuelled by regional skiers and boarders who decided to visit their local mountain more often.
So, are regional skiers the new/old market North American ski resorts must rely on? And if so, does it make sense that B.C. has a new Ministry of Resort Development?
To be sure, the new ministry is not just about facilitating the development of mountain resorts. And even if the regional skier market seems to be what ski
areas across the continent are focussing on right now, that doesn't mean destination markets won't return or new ones won't develop in the future.
But at the same time, it appears that the ski industry and the province are taking their cue from the sausage industry: the finished products, the ski resorts, certainly look nice, but maybe there should be more focus on the raw materials that go into them.
The foundation of the business - the raw material - is what we now call the regional market. It used to just be called local skiers.
Many years ago, before skiing became a business, it was a recreational pursuit, usually a family activity, and often part of a town's culture. In the Interior, ski areas at Kimberley, Rossland/Trail, Nelson and other areas developed from the mining industry, which was the industry in those towns. Skiing was what much of these towns' folk did on weekends and in their spare time during the winter. The mining company helped build the lifts and local ski clubs operated them.
Eventually, ski hills began to outgrow the ski club model and became businesses. But as the ski business grew it became, in many people's minds and wallets, more exclusive. Today those in the ski hill business are left trying to steal destination visitors from one another while hoping the regional market can sustain them.
The ski business has also morphed into the resort industry, with mountain villages and a cadre of little businesses dependent on the overall success of the resort - this newspaper being one of those little businesses.
Because this model has been mostly successful, we now have a Ministry of Resort Development. That's not necessarily wrong - as Al Raine has said, if we set our minds to it, there's no reason why B.C. can't become the number one jurisdiction for winter sports in North America. I'm just not sure if we've made that decision and if so, if we know why we're doing it.
We've wandered far from the roots of the sport. It's now something people must invest in, something too many people have to be convinced to do, rather than something that people grew up with.
About three years ago John MacLachlan Gray wrote about his family's vacation in Whistler. Gray, who feigns no interest in skiing, wrote: "I understand the thrill of skiing has to do with cold clean air, immense vistas and the sensation of speed; but cold air and immense vistas are a Canadian commonplace, and I have enough speed in my life, thanks. Did the year 2000 go by fast enough for you? Enjoying the downhill slope of your physical condition? Is your hair collecting snow?
"There, you see? You're skiing already."
Facilitating the development and expansion of resorts is fine, but efforts also need to be focused on people like Mr. Gray.
Then, perhaps, the regional business will be enough to sustain resorts.