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Western ski resorts debrief after worst season in recent memory

Canada West Ski Areas Association members attend Whistler conference
Tough winter Finding snow was harder in the 2014-2015 season, impacting B.C. skier visits. Photo BY Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb

When the data from the difficult 2014/15 ski season shakes out, it will show B.C. skier visits dipped drastically to roughly five million, down by 1.5 million just two years ago.

That's the preliminary number released at last week's annual conference of the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) in Whistler, which had more focus on the issue of climate change than ever before.

This season's skier numbers are a marked contrast from the peak year in 2007/08 of 6.8 million skier visits, and the most recent high of 6.5 million in 2012/13.

"Five million is a pretty tough year if that's where we end up," said CWSAA president David Lynn. "It has a huge impact on the ski resorts, financially. It's largely a fixed-cost business, so as your skier visits scale up, that money falls to the bottom line and if you go the other way, it puts many ski resorts into a loss position."

Some resorts felt the impact of the challenging weather season more than others — at least seven had major closures. Whistler Blackcomb, buffered to some extent by its high alpine and vertical, will not be releasing its numbers until Friday, May 8, in its quarterly report.

"As an industry, when you see that many people not skiing in any given season, you want to have people with their skis out, and trying the sport, and hopefully ultimately converting those people to long-time skiers and snowboarders," said WB president and CEO Dave Brownlie.

And while the cynics could say one resort's loss is another's gain, that's not how Brownlie views it.

"I don't look at it that way at all," he said. "Generally what happens is when we see these resorts not doing that well, people looking up and seeing there is no snow on the local mountains, they just stop thinking about skiing. That overall decline in the market is felt by everybody.

"At the end of the day, when the market shrinks, that's not good for any of us."

Yet, despite the numbers, the vibe at the CWSAA conference was upbeat with the season now in the rearview mirror.

"It was really positive in spite of the season," said Lynn of the overall tone of the meeting, which was attended by roughly 400 members.

"It was a really difficult ski season for a number of areas, particularly for those on the B.C. coast, and yet I think that by the time you get to the conference there a sense of putting it behind you.

"We're optimists by nature or we wouldn't be in this business!"

True to form, Lynn went on to say that there's every chance of growing that skier visitor number to new heights in the future, particularly given the weak Canadian dollar, the trends in global tourism, which have grown by five per cent in each of the last two years, and the tourist arrivals to B.C. Last year those were up across every major market of origin and in some cases dramatically.

"I believe we will do 6.5 million (skier visits) at some point in the next couple of years when we get better weather conditions... if not more," said Lynn.

Is 2015 the new normal for Whistler's winters?

Though there are reasons to be optimistic, climate change was the hot topic at the annual conference on the heels of one of the warmest, and strangest, winters on record.

Dr. Michael Pidwirny, an associate professor, physical geography, at the Okanagan Campus of UBC, with one of his research interests focused on climate change, spoke to CWSAA members.

He answered the question on everyone's minds: Is 2015 a new normal?

"No," said Pidwirny in a subsequent interview. "It's just an extreme year. It's part of the natural variability in our planet's climate.

"We don't have to worry that from now on 2015 will be the normal. We could get one more warm year in a row. That does occur historically that you get two warm years in a row. But what also occurs more often is that you get a warm year followed by a really cold year that usually brings above average snowfall."

That said, there is no doubt that winter temperatures at the resorts are getting steadily warming.

"This climate trend, this trend of warming temperatures, is not cyclical," said Pidwirny. "It's linear and co-related to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It's as simple as that."

It is, however, gradual... for some. For others, time is running out.

"For some resorts that are closer to the coast that have lower elevations and milder winter temperatures, time is limited," he said. "It's going to occur sometime before the end of the 21st century. For the interior resorts, they're much colder and climate model forecasts suggest they will remain viable in the future, just with a shorter season and milder winter temperatures."

"Whistler's got the altitude. That's going to help it. The bottom one-third of the resort may have some green years in the future."

So, if things continue as is, when will the 2015 season be the new norm in Whistler?

"If we look at the current trend between 1901 and 2012 of how temperatures are warming, this year won't become the norm until about 2150," said Pidwirny.

More competition on the horizon just down the road

Given the backdrop and the tone of the CWSAA conference, Brownlie was noticeably frustrated this week with the news that there is more movement on the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish (GAS) ski resort project.With its proposed 23 ski lifts and 124 trails, and private and commercial accommodations, GAS has now submitted a supplemental application to B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO). This was not part of the CWSAA agenda, said Brownlie, but it raises even more concern in light of the issues raised at the recent conference.

WB's president did not mince his words on the latest update in the decades-long saga of that project.

"We've got a resort down the road called Garibaldi at Squamish that continues to press forward and when you look at an overall flat market in North America for 20 years, you look at the amount of capacity we have in skiing in B.C. already, you look at the climate change issues, building a resort in Squamish makes absolutely no sense at all," he said.

"With all this data that clearly points in another direction, that the system would continue to allow it to move forward, I don't understand that."

The EAO is accepting comments on the Supplemental Application during a 45-day public comment period between May 8 and June 22.

There will also be an open house at the Executive Suites Hotel & Resort in Squamish on May 21 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Meanwhile, with fresh snow in the alpine, WB has extended its season until Sunday, June 7, on Whistler Mountain.