Decline in international tourism gets little attention in Canada 

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If visitors can be divided into two camps, destination and regional, it's pretty obvious which ones Whistler would want to focus its efforts on attracting.

According to statistics presented by Tourism Whistler at last December's open house on the municipal budget, and available on the municipal website, destination visitors made up 59 per cent of the 1 million winter visitors we hosted in 2011-12. Those 1 million winter visitors, both destination and regional, accounted for $793 million in in-resort expenditures.

The importance of destination visitors is underlined when compared with the 1.5 million visitors Whistler hosted last summer. Only 45 per cent of those people (675,000) were destination visitors. In-resort spending by all 1.5 million summer visitors totalled just $308 million.

The main point of this has been well known since the earliest days of Whistler: winter destination visitors stay longer and spend more than destination summer visitors or regional visitors at any time of year.

It should be pointed out that regional visitors — anyone from British Columbia or Washington state — are more likely to own property in Whistler than destination visitors. Those that do own property obviously contribute to the local economy through property taxes, resort taxes and strata fees.

Destination visitors, however, are the visitors most hotels, shops and restaurants are looking for. But for various reasons, attracting destination visitors is becoming more difficult.

The economy of the last five years has had an obvious effect. And over the last decade the rise in value of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. dollar and the British pound has made a Canadian vacation more expensive for Americans and Brits — even while Whistler hotel rates, in Canadian dollars, have declined.

The United States made passports mandatory for air travellers entering the country in 2007 and for travellers entering by land or sea in 2009. It's difficult to calculate the impact that has had on Americans travelling abroad, but it's unlikely to have encouraged those who didn't already venture out of the country to do so now.

Mexican visitors were a small but significant market for Whistler, up until the Conservative government slapped a visa requirement on Mexicans four years ago.

The broader, national picture for international visitors is getting significantly worse. According to statistics from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, between 2002 and 2011 international arrivals in Canada plunged from 20.1 million to 16 million. That doesn't seem too bad until you look at the context: Canada went from seventh in the world to 18th. While international arrivals were increasing in most countries, in Canada they were shrinking. Canada was passed by countries such as Turkey, which went from 12.8 million international arrivals to 29.3 million, Thailand (10.9 million to 19.1 million) and even Ukraine (10.5 million to 21.4 million). Saudi Arabia attracted more international arrivals (17.3 million) than Canada in 2011.

David Goldstein of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada has warned that the Canadian tourism industry is becoming overly reliant on Canadian travellers. Prior to 2002 domestic travellers made up roughly 60 per cent of the tourists in Canada, Goldstein told the Financial Post. By 2011 the ratio had become 80 per cent Canadian and only 20 per cent foreign.

The decline in international visitors to Canada has, not surprisingly, coincided with cuts to the Canadian Tourism Commission's budget. The CTC estimates that during the period prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics, for every dollar it spent on marketing Canada abroad, on average $40 was returned in tourist spending in Canada. But rather than taking advantage of the Olympic momentum the CTC has, through budget cuts, been forced to narrow its focus. Last year the CTC got out of the U.S. market entirely, leaving it to provincial and regional tourism organizations like Destination BC and Tourism Whistler.

A decade ago the CTC budget was more than $100 million annually. In 2012 it was $72 million. For 2013-14 it's $57.8 million. The latest cuts prompted this warning from TIAC last month: "Tourism continues to grow globally, but Canada's share continues to erode. We have slipped from 7th to 18th in the world for international visitors and we are one of only five countries to experience a drop in arrivals in the last 10 years. With less money to promote Canada in key markets, we will unquestionably struggle to take advantage of the growth in international travel."

In any other industry this would be big news, perhaps grounds for an inquiry — the market is increasing but Canada's share is shrinking. But tourism, particularly international tourism, isn't on most people's radar.


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