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Tourism industry on its own in post-Olympic world

How's business? After the worst of the recession. After years of Olympic preparation. After buildout. After two years of discount room rates. After the highway improvements. After the Olympics. After pay parking has been implemented.

How's business?

After the worst of the recession. After years of Olympic preparation. After buildout. After two years of discount room rates. After the highway improvements. After the Olympics. After pay parking has been implemented. It's the question of the summer of 2010.

The answer seems to depend on who you are and where you are. But few are really happy. Hotels are feeling pressure and applying pressure. Retailers, restaurateurs and bars are anxious. Tourism Whistler - like the chamber of commerce, Whistler Blackcomb, the arts council and the municipality - has stepped back, taken stock and refocused. Determining where Whistler goes from here requires more than a GPS.

We are in the tourism business. We're not in it alone but it is such a diverse "industry" that getting everyone moving in the same direction can be difficult. Like "culture," "community" and "sustainability," "tourism" can mean different things to different people.

While Whistler is a significant part of the tourism equation in B.C., and being a co-host of the 2010 Olympics should further boost Whistler's profile, leveraging that profile nationally and internationally has always been done with partners. At one time Canadian Airlines was one of those partners. Whistler has also partnered with Tourism Vancouver, Tourism B.C. and the Canadian Tourism Commission to get more bang for its bucks. And as TW refocuses on the destination market, partnerships with Tourism B.C. and the Canadian Tourism Commission will continue to be important.

Which is why the announcement last week that the federal government was cutting funding to the Canadian Tourism Commission is such a gut-punch. At a time when tourism should be building on the exposure generated by the Olympics this is the second move by a government that confuses and undercuts the industry. The first was last August, when the B.C. government suddenly decided to dissolve Tourism B.C., fire CEO Rod Harris and bring the agency under the direct management of the tourism ministry.

The pool of funds available to the CTC was expected to shrink, after $40 million in federal stimulus funds and $26 million in special funding for the Olympics came to an end this year. But the federal government is also cutting the CTC's budget, from $75.8 million this year to $70.7 million next year. To get the most out of its reduced budget the CTC states on its website: "The organization is reducing overhead costs and driving out some of the complexity within the structure. It will have a more scalable operation and be better positioned to adjust and compete for tourism business."

Translation: staff will be laid off and the savings will be put into marketing programs. The CTC isn't abandoning any of its 12 target markets but the new focus will be marketing programs "within high-yield international source markets."

The United States, apparently, isn't one of them.

"...the CTC earns a better return on investment from overseas markets compared to returns from the U.S., therefore CTC will remain invested in the U.S. market to strengthen its business to business brand through a more selective channel strategy."

The official CTC announcement continues to put lipstick on a pig in Orwellian language. "The future affordability of international operations and sustainable growth will be found through centralization. This means CTC will free up funds for more marketing impact without 'exiting' markets."

More marketing certainly isn't a bad thing but it seems to run contrary to the CTC's own plans for leveraging the Olympics, or "Harvesting the Afterglow." The CTC's post-Olympic policy states: "To ensure the continued success of our global marketing efforts, our emphasis has shifted from brand building to closing the sale." That would seem to require people, rather than marketing programs.

Understanding where the federal government is going on tourism has never been easy. That's partly the nature of tourism, as noted above. Labour and education policies and transportation infrastructure projects can all have significant impacts on tourism. But attempts to decipher the language of the CTC and Industry Canada (the Federal Tourism Strategy Framework calls for the development of a Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan) lead in circles. The beginning, middle and end of the Federal Tourism Strategy and Action Plan appears to be the two-year Marquee Tourism Events Program. That's the $40 million stimulus money that went to events and festivals across the country last year and this year. It included $170,000 for Kokanee Crankworx and $326,000 for the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival. The Ontario Plowmen's Association received $255,000 for an International Plowing Match and Rural Expo and the Rotary Club of Burlington Lakeshore Trust Fund got $98,000 for Canada's Largest Ribfest.

It's not that Whistler's festivals are any more or less worthy of government funding than Burlington's Ribfest. The point is that the federal government shows little interest (or imagination) in tourism following the Olympics.

So, how's business?