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Time to engage for the future

Last week, our community came full circle in considering tourism in our town and all the participants in this jigsaw puzzle that has landed us as a top destination globally.
Photo by Clare Ogilvie

Last week, our community came full circle in considering tourism in our town and all the participants in this jigsaw puzzle that has landed us as a top destination globally.

The discussion of the topic has been most recently percolating since it sort of boiled over September 2017 when passions in the resort heated to such a point over busyness and overtourism that the president and CEO of Tourism Whistler (TW) Barrett Fisher wrote a letter to the community, which was published in Pique (see, Sept. 12, 2017).

Fisher celebrated the real success Whistler has experienced, and reminded readers of the tough times we have had too, in her missive.

"So yes, business is booming," wrote Fisher, "but so too is the level of local angst surrounding this growth.

"Whistler now attracts just shy of 3 million unique visitors annually, and with that growth has come increased pressures in areas such as transportation, housing and staffing. We therefore are understandably feeling real pressure from back-to-back years of record visits."

But the letter was not a commentary on issues we all know and understand: It was a call to action.

"Tourism Whistler pledges to take a leadership role in being stewards of responsible tourism," said Fisher in that 2017 letter, and last week, 15 months and a great deal of research, planning and creative work later the organization called the community together to talk about a way to move forward.

In the months since the letter, TW not only continued its robust surveys of visitors, it also convened an evening-long community meeting (which I attended as a guest and which left me with a new appreciation for all the moving parts that have led to Whistler's success) to get input from residents and other partner groups. It was an inspiring, eye-opening and hopeful meeting and I have been keenly waiting for the follow up from it.

The start of a strategy and long-term plan was unveiled by TW and Fisher on Dec. 19—and it did not disappoint (see related story on page 16 and 17).

That our tourism organization has embraced leadership in looking at how to move forward should be galvanizing to the community. This is a branding exercise that all resort partners can benefit from—the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Vail Resorts, the Chamber of Commerce, our various business sectors including accommodation, food and beverage and the myriad activities we offer.

This is not a time for turf-wars amongst our resort leadership, this is a time to look forward and chart a path: All hands on deck.

Fisher, in her Dec. 19 presentation, reminded us that we have seen growth and it has created issues, but all indicators are saying we are heading for a bit of a slow down in the next couple of years (due to issues such as trade tensions and rising geopolitical challenges, social unrest, prolonged uncertainty about Brexit and lower business confidence, the collapse of major travel group Thomas Cook, with more than 8.6 million flight seats cancelled from September 2019 until the end of August 2020 and so on).

Still, the UN World Tourism Organization is forecasting that international arrivals are expected to reach nearly 1.6 billion by the year 2020. Of these worldwide arrivals in 2020, 1.2 billion will be intraregional and 378 million will be long-haul travellers. Tourism's growth will continue and so we need to strategize a way forward for our resort's continued success—and everyone has to be engaged.

One highlight of the presentation was the continued recognition of the importance of our community working and living here. TW wanted to "really confirm the characteristics and the local spirit of who Whistler truly is," Fisher said in an interview with Pique following the presentation. "And why? Because we believe it critically important that a healthy local community will bridge to a vibrant tourist economy. You need both working in tandem."

This comment by Fisher reminded me of something I came across while wandering tourism internet sites and journals recently.

Said Rebecca Jackson of Perfect Stays, a luxury self-catering company: "Today's travellers now crave engagement with the people, cultures and landscapes of the countries and cities they visit.

"In 2020, we will see this rise with travellers focusing on the native surroundings and how to fully immerse themselves into the local culture."

With that in mind and TW's branding strategy and long-term vision, the municipality's focus on affordable housing, Vail Resort's focus on a mountain experience second to none, the Chamber's ongoing efforts to keep business robust and service levels high and all the other resort partners focused on success, it feels like we have a road map for the future.