Tourism industry bracing for tough times ahead

March 24 was the first Tourism Ambassador Day in B.C., as proclaimed by the provincial government and the Council of Tourism Associations of B.C. The day was intended to mark the $9.2 billion in annual revenues and nearly 267,000 jobs the tourism industry generates in this province. Premier Gordon Campbell has "challenged" the industry to double those revenues over the next decade.

There are a few challenges standing in the way of the premier’s challenge, the first being that vacations and travel are not top-of-mind when there is a war going on.

But even if the war in Iraq ends tomorrow, the tourism industry will still be in for a tough time. Airline companies around the world can’t seem to stay afloat, never mind afford to keep their planes in the air. When Air Canada filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday CEO Robert Milton stated that "The business model is broken," and came off sounding like a little kid who has thrown his toys on the ground once too often.

It wasn’t that long ago that Canada had two national airlines. And when Air Canada merged with Canadian Airlines International, Canada 3000 stepped in and provided an alternative carrier. But as we’ve seen in the last two years, most airlines were built on the same smoke-and-mirrors promises as dot-com companies, and are now suffering the same fate.

Other new facts of life in the 21st century that are challenging the airline and tourist industries include a colour coded terrorist alert rating system in the United States, the sudden outbreak of SARS and the sight of people wearing surgical masks in airports and on planes, airport security taxes, long lineups at border crossings, higher fuel prices, last-minute vacation bookings and financial debts – both personal and corporate – that hang over those of us who thought the ’90s were going to last forever.

Tourism, of course, isn’t the only industry affected by the current economy and state of world affairs, but it is the business that we in Whistler are in. Others in the tourism business are already reacting. Bermuda, for example, is now offering a "companion flies free" two-for-one deal to attract tourists.

The last decade has seen a lot of investment in mountain resorts in B.C., from Fernie to Kicking Horse to Sun Peaks to Mount Washington. Representatives of many of those mountain communities got together in Whistler last fall during the Union of B.C. Municipalities conference to discuss issues common to all. It would seem this type of alliance is now needed more than ever, particularly in marketing. This winter has seen 26 avalanche deaths in B.C. and Vancouver International Airport is one of the continent’s major entry points for flights from Asia, where SARS is believed to have originated.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 ski areas across the continent, including Whistler, re-focussed their marketing efforts on regional markets. Most did OK with this strategy, according to a story in Ski Area Management magazine. SAM reported that "a LeisureTRAK survey conducted by Leisure Trends found many American families decided to spend more quality time together and to spend this time in the mountains, which were considered safer havens than more densely populated, target-rich environments." Cocooning in the mountains may be the next marketing theme.

Tourism Whistler has continued to market to regional travellers, who make up the bulk of Whistler’s summer visitors. What the situation will be with airlines and global politics when it comes time to market the resort next winter is anyone’s guess, but safety in the mountains might be the marketing message.

The other big marketing tool the B.C. tourism industry may have for next winter is the 2010 Winter Olympics. Like everyone in the tourism business, we can use all the help we can get.

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