The times they have a-changed

It seems a lifetime ago, but think back three years to when the odometer was clicking over from 1999 to 2000, the dot-com economy appeared to be running strong and the biggest fear was whether our computers would be rendered useless by the Y2K programming flaw. So much has changed since then.

In hindsight, of course, we should have seen it coming. The wild speculation and greed that left so many people who expected to cash in on the Millennium New Year holding the bag now seems like a fitting symbol for the first years of the new millennium. That gross error in judgement was followed shortly thereafter by the house-of-cards-style collapse of the dot-com economy. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, followed by the house-of-cards-style collapse of Enron, Arthur Andersen and the airline industry.

In the 19 months since Sept. 11, 2001 the economy has continued to sink. At the same time the government of the world’s only superpower has steadily withdrawn from the global community, becoming more protectionist and acting unilaterally on the world stage. The Bush administration has also waged and decisively won a relatively quick war in Iraq but is only just beginning the long quest to bring about political reform and stability in the Middle East.

A couple of weeks ago veteran CBS correspondent Andy Rooney, a Second World War survivor, remarked that he couldn’t remember a more discouraging period during his lifetime. Canadian writer Robert Fulford wrote following the Sept. 11 attacks that our understanding that evil does exist in this world had been reawakened. It makes the optimism that surrounded the Millennium New Year seem so long ago.

The world hasn’t quite yet reached hell in a hand basket, but it is getting warmer. We all face, in the parlance of the new millennium, challenges.

Tourism may not be the industry facing the biggest challenges in the spring of 2003, but it’s the industry that determines how things go in our little corner of the world. And those challenges are significant. In addition to the above-mentioned problems, at the moment there is also the global health issue of SARS, which is scary enough in itself, but it isn’t helping the beleaguered airline industry either.

Some other realities of the new millennium, like colour-coded terrorist alerts, long waits at border crossings, higher fuel prices and a stronger Canadian dollar, also work against tourism here. Even the advent of booking vacations on the Internet, which may be a boon to the consumer, is a challenge for the tourism industry. People are not booking trips as far in advance, which makes it more difficult for restaurants, hotels and ski areas to plan for staffing and resources.

With the winter season essentially over our immediate attention turns to summer, a time when most visitors to Whistler are regional vacationers. The bigger picture problems of the airline industry and geo-political issues will have less impact on summer business. But there are concerns about next winter.

Following Sept. 11, 2001 most ski areas in North America refocused their marketing efforts on regional skiers and boarders. By most accounts, they were relatively successful.

A recent poll in the United States done for Travelocity suggests the American public is thinking about vacations next winter similar to the way they thought about vacations after Sept. 11 – family oriented, close to home, "safe" surroundings as opposed to potential terrorist targets. Mountain vacations seemed to fit those values.

However, being up in the north-west corner of the continent, Whistler is still considered out of the way by many Americans, particularly when Colorado and Utah are so central. Who knows whether border crossings and air travel will be any more attractive next winter than they are now.

Assuming the solution (for all North American ski resorts) is to concentrate on the regional markets, resorts may still fill hotel rooms but history has shown that regional visitors spend less than long-distance travellers. That spells less revenue for restaurants, retailers, ski schools and so on, even if hotel room nights remain steady. That also means fewer jobs in those businesses.

All these changes come following a period when expansion and investment in mountain resorts in B.C. has been at an all-time high. Just when the industry is counting on growth, the goal posts, the sidelines and the end zone have all been moved.

But the universe seems to work in cycles – economies, businesses, weather, wars… all will eventually get back to "normal," or at least something less daunting than what we face today. For the immediate future, however, a cautious approach is needed. The world has changed in the last three years.

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