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Opinion: What is ‘unconstrained growth’—and how will Whistler manage it?

Opening Remarks jan 19 2022
With modelling projecting unconstrained growth in visitation to Whistler, how can the ski resort achieve balanced, sustainable tourism?

Unconstrained growth.

Two words that have stuck with me since I read them at the top of a PowerPoint slide in a Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) presentation in mid-December.

The presentation was about a new Balance Model—a product of the Strategic Planning Committee struck in 2018—seeking a sustainable future for the resort, and the potential “unconstrained growth” in question is based off of historical population figures.

As population in the Lower Mainland grows, and more people fly into YVR, visitation to Whistler, historically, has grown right alongside it. For every 100,000-person increase in the Lower Mainland, Whistler sees an additional 400 daily visitors, according to the RMOW’s analysis. 

Metro Vancouver’s population was about 2.8 million in 2021. Recent modelling done by the Metro Vancouver Regional District predicts that number will grow to 3.8 million by 2050.

So that extra million people could, in theory at least, equate to 4,000 extra daily visitors to Whistler by 2050.

And according to the RMOW, for every 1,000 daily visitors, we need 600 workers to serve them—so tack on 2,400 more employees living locally.

These equations don’t even factor in arrivals to YVR. For every additional 1 million arrivals, Whistler has typically seen 300 additional daily destination visitors, according to the RMOW.

The municipality said its projections aren’t based on “final modelling,” and were presented strictly for discussion purposes—so let’s get that discussion started.

Is Whistler prepared to deal with unconstrained growth?

At a cursory glance, no—not even close (but then, that’s exactly why the RMOW is working on a Balance Model).

Even putting the future projections aside, we’re already seeing record numbers, and related pressure points, in several areas.

Visitation to Whistler parks was up 77 per cent last year compared to 2019—virtually all attributed to tourists.

In November, traffic counters at Brio tallied an average of 25,000 cars a day (the busiest month on record, though the number was likely inflated by flooding in other parts of the province, which wiped out several main highways).

All of this while businesses can’t find enough staff to properly serve the guests we have, and many locals can’t find a place to live. Without real, concrete solutions, these problems are only going to get worse.

From my discussions with locals and what I read online, I don’t get the sense that many Whistlerites are too enthused about the prospect of unconstrained growth.

Whistler locals don’t want to be unable to access resort parks. They don’t want to be pushed off of local trails. They don’t want to see our wildlife impacted, or our natural areas tarnished. They don’t want to be unable to find a place to park (or be forced to pay for parking everywhere they go), and they don’t want to see the highway packed with vehicles every day. So what’s the answer?

Going back as far as the ‘80s, various proponents have been trying to launch a new ski resort on Brohm Ridge in Squamish.

The elusive Garibaldi at Squamish (GAS)—now being pursued by Aquilini Development and Northland Properties—may yet become a reality.

Plans include 130 ski and snowboard trails, 21 lifts, and a network of multi-use trails. At build-out, the resort could accommodate 15,000 skiers a day in winter and about 14,000 guests in the summer.

The proponents say they hope to have an updated Master Plan available online in March, and are eyeing a potential opening date in winter 2028.

Whistler has been vocal in its opposition to GAS since at least the mid-2000s. In 2007, with occupancy levels in Whistler a cause for concern, former Mayor Ken Melamed called its proposed scale “shocking” in a letter to the province.

“There is no credible explanation of where GAS intends to get 15,000 additional skiers for every day of the ski season,” Melamed wrote. “We are thus left to believe that, if approved, (the) government would be endorsing the notion of new resorts stealing the market share from existing B.C. resorts.”

I fully understand Whistler’s nervousness—the GAS proposal has always come with major concerns in regards to siphoning skier visits from Whistler, congestion on the Sea to Sky, feasibility in a changing climate, and staffing.

It would have a real impact on Whistler, and I’m not saying it’s something I endorse. Many in Whistler still refer to dark days passed, when hotel rooms couldn’t be filled and business viability was an ongoing concern. We don’t want to go back there, either.

But looking at the visitation growth now expected, I can’t help but wonder if at least some of the protectionism is shortsighted—or how new developments will impact Whistler’s growth projections.

We can’t stop populations from growing, or limit the amount of people driving up the highway to Whistler—maybe it makes sense to at least try and spread them out?

A proposed surfpark at Britannia Beach, which recently received first reading at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, will also help with dispersal (what these new developments will mean for our already diminished workforce is a topic for another column).

In the meantime, Whistler had best keep working on that Balance Model, and hope it produces tangible results. Because on the current trajectory, the Whistler we all know and love will look very different in coming decades—and for some, that’s a frightening prospect. 

I’m reminded of something a Whistler homeowner once said to me in a conversation about their opposition to a nearby housing development: “The possibility that our lives may change scares me.”

It was more than four years ago, but I still think about that quote often—not for the literal, NIMBYish meaning the homeowner intended, but for the inadvertent philosophical undertones.

Yes, change is scary, but it’s also inevitable. On a long enough timeline, everything we’ve ever known will change. We can’t stop it from happening, but with enough planning and foresight, we can at least be prepared for what’s to come.

Back in 2017, then-Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden spoke of a “watershed moment” for Whistler. She was referring to efforts to update the resort’s Official Community Plan, and potential major rezoning applications that might follow.

I would argue the real watershed moment is happening right now, in 2022.

The RMOW will be engaging the community on its Balance Model in the coming months, and in October, voters will elect a new mayor and council.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching very closely what our candidates have to say about “unconstrained growth.”