Diversification 

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There's a lot of talk about diversification these days, but the recent report by the Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) committee makes a few things pretty clear.

The first is that this resort's economic activity, $1.3 billion of it a year, relies heavily on destination visitors who account for roughly 68 per cent of those revenues. Regional visitors account for another 19 per cent and permanent residents — some 10,000 of us — account for eight per cent of that total.

It's also telling where the money is being spent. The largest slice of the pie goes to restaurants and pubs at 30 per cent — 33 per cent if you include entertainment and nightclubs. But Recreation and Comparison Goods (think snowmobile tours, lift tickets and ski rentals) is 25 per cent while Convenience Goods and Services (think groceries and spas) is another 21 per cent for a combined total of 46 per cent.

It's also clear that the resort is configured for tourism, a little too much. Put simply, far too many hotel beds have been built to reliably fill, and there's too much short-term tourist rental accommodation for the demand.

Consider: there are roughly 10,000 permanent residents, between 2,000 and 4,000 additional transient workers depending on the time of year and probably 12,000 second homeowners for a total of roughly 25,000 beds. At the same time we have something like 54,000 beds already built, according to the municipality — and will have over 61,000 if and when we reach build-out.

That's a lot of beds to fill, and the result is some of the lowest priced accommodation you'll find anywhere. Supply completely dwarfs the demand.

The thing is, when we talk about economic diversification — the hot topic of the day as we plan for a better, more stable economy — everyone seems to be talking about different things.

For people who are responsible for filling all of those extra beds as often as possible, diversification is about adding more reasons for people to come to Whistler outside of the usual skiers and mountain bikers/golfers: more events, more conferences, more attractions and more good reasons for people to travel here and stay for an extended period of time.

For locals who live here — many of whom are now paying mortgages at Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing — diversification means more opportunity: more interesting, higher paying jobs that reflect our high education levels and middle class aspirations, and more job security than you can get in a cyclical industry like tourism, that's at the mercy of every economic downturn and our increasingly unpredictable weather. Our population is also aging, the census shows, and people are starting to think about what happens in the next 20 to 30 years when many of us will retire.

The municipality also has an interest in diversifying its revenue sources so it's less dependent on property taxes to cover its own aspirations and growing costs. Encouraging small businesses and startups that are unrelated to tourism is one way to do this, as well as unique initiatives like the community forest.

There are other good reasons for diversification, but the point is that we all have different and possibly incompatible ideas of what it should look like.

My own feeling is that diversification of our existing tourism economy will ultimately win out because it's an industry we understand, it's already driving our economy and we're not going to fill all those beds that are already there by opening a post-secondary school or encouraging high-tech startups. Not that these things shouldn't happen, they should and probably will, they just don't address the overriding issue of empty space.

How do we grow tourism? Getting people to stay longer and ride the mountains mid-week is a good start, but people in North America don't get holidays the way people do in Europe. Given the number of beds and level of development here already, I say it's time to go big.

I personally think we need a third mountain — Powder Mountain, developed using the minimalist Silverton model, would be a great option, but Rainbow Mountain makes more sense when it comes to keeping things central. I'd even be open to developing further into Garibaldi Park (hold the rotten tomatoes), providing we could come up with an arrangement where every square kilometre taken out of the park for skiing and other activities is replaced with two square kilometres of space along another border.

We also need to make things easier for our retailers, given how much economic activity they generate for the resort and how tough they have it. Rents are high, but they're market-driven and there's not much we can do about that.

Things we can control include the commercial tax rate (about 3.5 times higher for business owners than residents), business fees, Tourism Whistler fees and pay parking. Keeping the village clean and appealing to visitors is important, and Tourism Whistler does a great job marketing the resort and filling rooms, but there has to be a way to make things more affordable for an economic segment we currently rely on for about 46 per cent of our economic activity. Lowering the barriers to doing business will encourage more startups and a more diverse range of stores.

We can't turn back the clock and build fewer rental properties and hotels in the resort, or take steps to control commercial rents. But we can work to fix the industries that drive this resort before we diversify into something else.

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