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TW watching gas prices, rising Loonie

No impact so far on regional tourism market as resort pushes value message

Despite a growing number of factors that are normally expected to impact tourism, including rising gas prices and a rising Canadian dollar, Whistler’s numbers are well up over the past winter and forecasts remain positive through this summer.

However, Tourism Whistler will be monitoring the situation closely while pressing members to accent value in their promotions.

“When we look at our regional market, room nights have been stable or increasing over the past winter season when compared to the winter previous, while last summer, when gas prices were also a big story, numbers were up over the previous summer,” said Breton Murphy, manager of community and media relations for Tourism Whistler.

“It remains a long-term concern for us, because at the end of the day it reduces the discretionary income of consumers, but as long as demand to visit Whistler persists…. the high cost of fuel is not a deal breaker for potential travelers.”

In the United States, gasoline averaged US$3.10 a gallon (3.54 litres) this week, a record for the country. Despite falling oil prices, refineries are struggling to keep up with demand and are running below capacity. With oil prices expected to rebound and no ready solution to refinery issues, some analysts are predicting that gasoline could reach $4 a gallon, possibly within the next year.

Some analysts have pointed out that America’s highest gas prices were actually in 1981, once inflation is taken into account. However, $4 a gallon would smash any previous record prices.

In B.C., gas prices are over $1.20 a litre this week. A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that consumers were being gouged by as much as 27 cents per litre, prompting NDP Leader Jack Layton to call for a Parliamentary inquiry into gas prices.

Adding to Canada’s economic worries, the Loonie is nearing a 29-year high against the U.S. dollar. There are concerns that the high dollar will discourage Americans from travelling to Canada this summer, while encouraging more Canadians to spend their vacations south of the border.

Whistler’s experience over the past year is the opposite of what the tourism industry would expect.

Last summer was Whistler’s best ever in terms of room nights and visitor numbers, and tourism was up 14 per cent over the previous summer. Numbers are still being evaluated from this past winter, but numbers are expected to be up 13 per cent over the 2005-06 ski season, which was stronger than any of the three previous seasons.

“Fuel especially has been a challenge for some time, and we had speculated that high gas prices would likely affect casual day trips up to Whistler but at this time the rising fuel prices don’t appear to be influencing Whistler’s regional market, which is the market you would expect to be most impacted,” said Murphy. “More than 95 per cent of visitors drive a personal vehicle to reach Whistler.

“We will try to monitor the situation and anything else that might be perceived as a barrier to travel. We can’t control fuel prices, but we are monitoring the issue and developing strategies that will continue to offer good value for tourists. Whether that’s gas vouchers or package deals or lowering room rates… we always come back to the focus on promoting the value that’s offered here.”

Murphy says that Tourism Whistler is fairly responsive to changes in the market, should gas prices and the rising dollar start to impact visitor numbers, and that most of the organization’s members are on board with marketing plans.

“We’ve found in recent cycles that people really respond to great value, and that in turn leads to future offerings that highlight that value. You could get reasonable rooms here all winter, comparable to other ski resorts in the province. We do the research, and then can turn around to our membership and say here’s what visitors are looking for and what they expect from us, and that helps us to raise the bar for service and provide a great product at a great price. What we’ve seen over the past year has been very encouraging, and there’s still room to do better.”

Whistler appears to have bucked the rest of the province. In January, the number of international overnight visitors was down 3.5 per cent in total, although that rebounded in February with a 4.4 per cent increase over the previous year. Numbers have not been released for March and April.