Value may be biggest factor influencing tourism

It’s been said of economists that if you asked two of them for the time of day there’d be so much analysis, data interpretation and sifting through of numbers that they would invariably come up with a different answer.

Being locked in a room full of economists is a fate even Kafka couldn’t have imagined.

Not to belittle economists, but trying to predict something as complex as the economy is not an exact science. It’s always interesting, therefore, when one economist makes a prediction and that prediction is presented without challenge.

That was the situation on Monday when Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for Credit Union Central of B.C., predicted B.C.’s tourism industry will decline next year. Pastrick made his prediction based on the drop in the number of international tourists who visited B.C. this past August, the higher Canadian dollar and anticipated slow economic growth in the U.S. next year. He also noted how Seattle has cut into Vancouver’s cruise ship business in recent years and that higher gas prices may be a deterrent to travel.

Tourism officials, naturally, were quick to counter Pastrick’s prediction. They pointed to the fact that Tourism B.C.’s budget for marketing the province will double next year, from $25 million to $50 million. As well, while Seattle’s cruise ship business has grown considerably in recent years, and Vancouver’s has remained flat, cruise ship business in Victoria and Prince Rupert has grown significantly.

For the record, Tourism B.C. officials predict tourism revenues across the province will increase 3 per cent next year.

But Pastrick’s prediction does help underscore, once again, the factors affecting tourism in B.C. and, in turn, affecting all of us in Whistler. Where the U.S. economy will go in the next year is any economist’s guess, but a healthier U.S. economy would help tourism in B.C. The drop in international visitors in August this year is largely attributed to fewer Americans visiting. But was that because of bad weather in B.C. in August, high gas prices, some feeling of patriotism as the U.S. ramped up for the election?

The tourism industry can’t do anything about the U.S. economy or the price of oil, but it can and is addressing one of the age-old problems: awareness. Doubling the marketing budget for Tourism B.C., as well as Intrawest’s $3 million marketing campaign in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area, should produce results next year.

Getting people here is still an issue. Security concerns and border delays are being addressed but they are not going to be eliminated as long as there’s a war on terrorism. And if Americans decide to travel outside their country on vacation, B.C. is still a long way from the biggest population centres in the U.S. To get tourists from those centres to B.C. we are reliant on the airline industry, which of course is doing even more poorly than the U.S. economy.

It would be interesting to see a scientific survey of American visitors to find out how important the exchange rate is to their vacation plans. Certainly Americans get less for their dollar in Canada today than they did a couple of years ago, but the U.S. dollar is still worth more than the loonie. And do most people make vacation decisions based on the exchange rate?

More important than the exchange rate is value. Tourism Whistler is emphasizing value this winter, and encouraging its member businesses to do the same. It’s not as exciting as a new high-speed lift or a new village, but it may leave a more lasting impression on visitors.

Value is part of the message Tourism B.C. should be getting out with its new budget, and it’s what the tourism industry needs to deliver. Value is a subjective quality, not one easily quantified and analyzed by economists, but it may be the most important measurement for tourists.

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