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Interesting winter ahead…

Labour Day, the unofficial end of summer - which in Whistler means most people's thoughts turn to winter. And the winter of 2009-2010 is going to be perhaps the most interesting one in Whistler's history.

Labour Day, the unofficial end of summer - which in Whistler means most people's thoughts turn to winter. And the winter of 2009-2010 is going to be perhaps the most interesting one in Whistler's history.

But you don't get to the top of a mountain without a climb through the forest...

There were a lot of people around the village this summer, in August particularly. That was good for everyone, but the numbers were not at a level that meant it was a great summer, business-wise, for anyone.

The people that were staying overnight in Whistler stayed in severely discounted hotel rooms. A new index by a discount travel website found that Whistler hotel rooms dropped 18 per cent last month, compared to August 2008, the fourth biggest drop in Canada. Statistical confirmation of something we already suspected.

The discounted rooms helped bring some people to Whistler, but the hotels, and the people who own the hotel rooms, didn't make any money. They just didn't lose as much as they feared.

Meanwhile, the occupancy rate for condos was down because people could get cheap deals on hotel rooms.

Importantly, the discounted rooms and flow of visitors kept people in Whistler employed and maintained some momentum for the winter ahead. But how much the overnight visitors, and day-trippers, spent while in Whistler is debatable. Business has been weak enough that the traditional spring specials have been maintained at many high-end restaurants all summer. There have also been some pretty good deals on lift tickets, including the Peak 2 Peak, this summer. Again, those deals have helped fill seats and kept the local economy moving this summer.

And through most of the summer Whistler has been blessed by warm, sunny weather, which has helped draw people here. The Whistler Mountaineer business appears to have been steady and in recent weeks bus loads of Asian visitors have been arriving in the village.

All these things point to the flexibility and adaptability of businesses in the tourism industry. But if one could convince all the various interests involved in tourism in Whistler to share their numbers, the strong suspicion is that despite all the good things that happened this summer, the model is not economically sustainable.

Summer, as far as tourism business is concerned, is always short in Whistler: from the July 1 weekend to Labour Day. A generous 10 weeks this year, considering July 1 was a Wednesday and Labour Day is as late as it can possibly be in September.

Ten weeks in the best of years is not much time to compensate for the slow business in April, May, June, October and November. And in a year like this, and a recession like the one we are apparently coming out of, it puts even more pressure on businesses to make a go of it in the winter.

And it's going to be an interesting winter.

There has been a lot of talk about Olympic aversion messing up the coming winter in Whistler (although the lowest priced season passes in a decade have boosted early sales). But Olympic aversion isn't impacting any of Vail Resorts' ski areas. It's the economy, and the fear of its impact on skier visits, that has Vail Resorts planning to hire 70 per cent fewer foreign workers this winter. With more Americans unemployed or underemployed, Vail Resorts doesn't need as many foreigners, officials told Mountain News .

Meanwhile The Aspen Skiing Co. is ramping up its marketing budget this winter and offering special "book early" incentives such as kids ski and stay for free during March. March, of course, is normally one of the busiest months of the winter for ski areas.

"Normal" may become an archaic word in Whistler, a relic from an earlier era, like Jet Stix and yelling "single" in lift lineups. The Olympics and the recession are the most obvious factors distorting "normal" in Whistler this winter, but by spring the town will be living with several permanent changes.

Whistler will be more accessible, via the upgraded Sea to Sky Highway, this winter. Regular travellers of the highway already know this, but there are lots of people who won't "discover" this until the highway is declared finished this fall.

The exposure Whistler, Vancouver and British Columbia receive through the Olympics is also expected to increase visitor numbers in the months and years following the Games.

The impact of the athletes' village/Cheakamus Crossing nighbourhood and the Rainbow neighbourhood are going to take some time to assess, but they could mean another generation of people will finally feel like they have a stake in Whistler. Ownership of your home is a powerful motivator, and the two resident-restricted neighbourhoods may eventually produce the next generation of community leaders, just as Tapley's Farm did.

Fall always holds promise in the mountains. This year it promises to be interesting.