August 04, 2006 Features & Images » Feature Story

Capturing a market 

Lisa Richardson writes a love letter home to Whistler from aboard a bilge-spewing, baby-boomer cleaving Alaska cruise ship.

Not exactly in her element, Whistler local Lisa Richardson toughs out a week-long Alaskan cruise to celebrate her mom's 60th. Photo by Lisa Richardson
  • Not exactly in her element, Whistler local Lisa Richardson toughs out a week-long
    Alaskan cruise to celebrate her mom's 60th. Photo by Lisa Richardson

For one week in July I was held hostage. On board a cruise ship. En route to Alaska. The only thing a proud tourism industry worker could do to salvage her dignity at suddenly experiencing travel on the other side of the fence, was to turn it into a reconnaissance exercise.

My mission: Discover what Whistler can learn from cruising. After all, it's the fastest growing segment of the worldwide travel industry, in an era when many other travel businesses, including Whistler, have seen slumping numbers. Statistically, 11.2 million people took cruises in 2005, with almost 1 million of them setting sail from Vancouver, the primary port of the Alaska cruise industry.

Sixty per cent of those passengers book-end their cruise with a day trip or an overnighter in the Greater Vancouver area. That’s 600,000 travellers firmly in Whistler’s sights – 600,000 passengers who have already dealt with Customs, who already have passports, who are looking for something to do. In 2003, only 1 per cent of cruise ship passengers stayed overnight in Whistler. With the Whistler Mountaineer reinvigorating passenger rail to Whistler and offering pre and post-cruise packages, that’s almost 600,000 new travellers to lure into the mountains. For a glimpse. For what might possibly be the highlight of the entire trip. For a sampler that might very well bring them back for more.

Said Rocky Mountaineer Vacation’s Ian Robertson: "We have significant evidence to tell us that when people take a Rocky Mountaineer train tour and stay in Kamloops, that they do return. The Kamloops Tourist Information Centre staff are feeding back to us that they have significant numbers of people visiting them who came through the area on the Rocky Mountaineer five or six years ago, and wanted to come back. We don’t have the data yet on the Whistler Mountaineer, but I can only believe that the same thing will happen here. Whistler is very well-positioned to take advantage of the cruise market."

Part way through its first year, the Whistler Mountaineer has blown the expectations of both passengers and the company. The 2006 targets of 36,000 passengers were met by mid-July, with three months remaining in the six month operating season. "We added another coach because the demand was so high," said Robertson. With capacity expanded to 240 passengers daily in each direction, and many trips sold out, that’s a lot of new eyes on Whistler.

Robertson also advised that 65 per cent of guests on board the train said the trip exceeded their expectations, with an additional 30 per cent satisfied that their expectations had been met.

Tourism Whistler’s Manager of Community and Media Relations, Breton Murphy, acknowledged, "Whistler Mountaineer has been a key contributor to the significant growth in tour and travel bookings this summer."

Added Director of Communications Michele Comeau Thompson, "Tourism Whistler has been working on the cruise segment for a number of years. The train has been an excellent complement to help build the pre- and post-cruise offering for Whistler. Cruises and trains are a natural fit."

Personally, my vote goes with the train.

Aboard the cruise ship, I wasn’t exactly in my element. Personal politics were packed away and left stashed under the bed in Pemberton for a week. For the purposes of happy families, I elected to ignore that cruise ships disgorge over 200,000 gallons of sewage and over 2 million gallons of greywater each week, not to mention hazardous waste or oily bilge water, into unregulated Canadian waters. Meanwhile Alaska, Washington and California enforce strict environmental regulations, threatening as one industry consultant said to make B.C. the toilet bowl of the cruise industry. Or that only the officers on board came from first world countries, with the crew from countries like Honduras, Haiti, the Philippines, Serbia and Romania filling 10-month, seven-days-a-week contracts. As most cruise ships are foreign-flagged and registered in Panama or the Bahamas, they dodge Canadian and U.S. labour law protections, earning them the name "sweatships" from industry activists.

But not everything has to be about politics, I decided. High-horses can be dismounted from. Mothers only turn 60 once, and if they want to fly across the world to take a cruise to Alaska, then a person can suck it up for one week, be grateful for the opportunity, and enjoy the ride.

Problem is, after working in Whistler for a decade, a person’s standards have become quite high.

Cruise tourism is weighted heavily with baby boomers – the average passenger age is 56 years; household incomes average $95,000; soft adventure, wildlife-spotting and scenic vistas top the agenda. Most passengers are traveling in two-person parties, celebrating anniversaries with spouses, or seeing the world with other family members or friends.

This is a demographic that considers travel a necessity, not a luxury. But they want the logistics to be quick, easy and convenient. They’re chronically time-pressed, and demand immediate gratification. They want choices, interactivity and sight-doing, as opposed to sightseeing – they want to be special, to have preferred seating or after-hours access, to feel as if they are blazing trails, even when they’re on the beaten path. And they long for romance. Boomers are sentimental suckers – they’re buying up old cars, they’re chasing up old lovers, they’re wanting to be swept away.

I spent a week amongst them – we were mustered through embarkation to safety briefings to buffet dinners, belched onto shore and hustled into buses, to spend between three and eight hours at port, before being herded back on deck. If we acted like cattle, it was because we had no choice. The only way to swim against the current was to jump overboard. And 80 per cent of the people who go overboard on cruise ships are never found again.

My survival tactics, then, involved smuggling alcohol on board to avoid a brutal tab that would have eventuated after a week of gaily swiping one’s room card at the bar; (All-inclusivity is a myth. One senior staff member admitted to me that the larger the ship, the less space on board, with every square foot calculated at generating additional revenue. Spending is made easy. No cash leaves your hands while on board – even a packet of smokes at the ship’s store is put on the room-account to be deducted from your pre-scanned credit card at journey’s end); leaving ridiculously big tips for our cabin staff who discretely ignored evidence of the contraband… and writing a love-letter to Whistler.

A love letter I didn’t know what to do with, so put it in a bottle, threw it overboard, and wondered if it would wash up on a beach anywhere near here…


I know you’re working hard right now, and don’t have much time to look around, smell the roses. It’s an ambitious thing, to become the "premier resort community as we move toward sustainability." (Did you ever think about adding a bit more flavour to your goals, a bit more Neverland? There’s a town that aims to be "the funkiest place in Arkansas." That’s pretty catchy… Oh, never mind.) I really think you’ve been too hard on yourself lately. Worrying so much about numbers, the rise and fall of bar graphs, the doom and gloom of visitor indices, and that crazy Olympic deadline…

So, while I’m faraway-so-close, hulking along the coastline with Captain Vancouver’s sulky words about the monotony of it all on my mind, I want to tell you what I like about you. (Dare I say love?)

First of all, you’re beautiful. In all your changing moods, even in the most mundane moments of my daily commute, you drop my jaw and smack my gob like nothing along the entire Inside Passage. True story. I couldn’t even be bothered to bring my camera out.

Sure, you’re not always on your best behaviour, but you are genuinely kind. I know you get short-tempered with the congestion at Nesters, the lineups and those dawdling folk who can’t seem to walk in a straight line, but when I play tourist with you, you go along with it. You listen to my questions. You try and give me directions. You help me book my bus ticket. You really put on a good show. You told me that role-playing was fun… but now I see why. Every Whistlerite should try it out. Play tourist-for-a-day. See the world with a whole new set of eyes.

I love how hard-core you are. That you’re pushing your limits and charging and surrounding yourself with the brilliant, the beautiful, the talented. But it’s okay to make it easy for people too. It is okay to show compassion to the stumblers, the dazed, the people who need to know where the nearest Starbucks is even as they’re standing outside a perfectly good java establishment. They’re looking for the same thing we are, babe: a moment of transcendence from the everyday.

I confess I like that yin-yang thing you have going on, too. That little bit of bad-ass in you, trying to see how many of the seven deadly sins you can indulge in before your daypass to heaven gets revoked. And then the nights you stay up wondering if maybe it’s time you got respectable, grew up, were taken seriously. Walking that thin vibrating line of the establishment and the fringe, never 100 per cent sure which side you’re on. I don’t think I want you to choose. I like that space where the conflict hangs, that friction. It gives me the space to be at odds with myself.

You care about your shit. Other people do to, you know. For some reason, what you do with your shit is the clearest statement of what you’re about, of who you really are. I’m glad you’re taking responsibility for it, not palming it off to someone else, even if it will cost you more. I’m glad you work hard to integrate being green into everything you do. How twisted is this… I’m even professing my love for your shit.

What I’m trying to say is that you won me over. I know you said I should see other people. And I tried. With open eyes. And as open a heart as I could. But mine was taken long ago. And frankly, nothing else quite measures up.

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