Tourism and the big picture

In last February’s throne speech, the provincial government challenged the tourism industry to double in size by 2010. Tourism is a $9 billion industry, Minister of Competition, Science and Enterprise Rick Thorpe said, "and creating new opportunities in tourism is a key component of our Heartlands Economic Strategy."

Also in the throne speech, the province announced it was creating a new B.C. resort task force "to work with B.C.'s four-season resort communities and First Nations to ensure the province's resort potential is fully realized and fully recognized around the world."

Mountain resorts are only one aspect of B.C.’s tourism industry, but an important one, as Thorpe said in a September release: "Along with skiing and golf, wine tourism is now one of the top three draws to our province for visitors from around the world, and especially from the U.S. Pacific Northwest."

In recent weeks there have been signs that the province is serious about furthering resort development, including a new 50-year master plan agreement at Hemlock Valley and creation of a new resort at Valemount. As well, Red Mountain at Rossland has new owners who appear to want to make something of that area, and plans – or perhaps dreams – are still alive for the Jumbo resort in the Kootenays and the Garibaldi at Squamish resort south of Whistler.

And after a period in the 1990s when resort ownership across North America was consolidated amongst a handful of companies, and some of those companies overextended themselves, ownership of B.C. mountain resorts now appears to be fairly stable. Sun Peaks has a strong Japanese owner. The Shumann family is operating Big White and Silver Star so that they complement one another. Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which owns the Fernie and Kimberley ski areas as well as resorts in Alberta, has survived a financial crisis and now appears content with slow, steady growth. The Dutch giant Ballust Needham has the deep pockets it needs for its long-range plans at Kicking Horse. And of course Intrawest, which owns Panorama as well as Whistler-Blackcomb, remains one of the biggest mountain resort owners/operators in the world.

But where are all the skiers and boarders going to come from for these expanding resorts? The number of North American skiers and boarders hasn’t increased significantly in nearly 15 years.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that mountain resorts can’t afford to be just about skiing and boarding; they must include year-round recreation. And they are also about real estate. One of the reasons for the ambitious plans at the Kootenay resorts is that they offer Albertans, in particular, opportunities to own recreational real estate that aren’t available at resorts in the national parks. The now ubiquitous village concept goes hand in hand with any mountain resort development.

You also need destination visitors to fill those villages, and destination visitors haven’t been as plentiful since the economy tanked, 9/11, the war in Iraq, SARS and other maladies afflicted the tourism industry.

But not everyone is so pessimistic.

Al Raine, one of the architects of B.C.’s commercial alpine ski policy and a central figure in Whistler’s development, thinks the future is very bright.

"The premier gave the tourism industry the challenge to double in size," Raine said this week. "The challenge I think we should give ourselves is to try and pass Colorado (in skier visits) by 2015."

Colorado does about 11 million skier visits annually, compared to B.C.’s 6 million , but as the president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA said in a release earlier this fall: "Skiing and snowboarding are synonymous with Colorado…"

Raine says topping Colorado’s numbers and becoming the snow capital of North America is an achievable goal, capitalizing on B.C.’s existing ski areas and perhaps one or two new ones – but any new ones must be better than anything that exists today.

"We’d have to steal market share from Colorado, from Utah and Wyoming – but why not?" he asks. "We’re already in an arms race with them today. They’ve dropped their prices, against a weaker Canadian dollar, and they’ve gone after our markets."

Raine feels the 2010 Olympics alone should boost skier visits in B.C. by 1 million over the next few years, but we could do much better.

"I would love to participate in a think-tank session where we said we were going to surpass Colorado by 2015. Forget the budgets, just look at our image, our problems, the markets we’re going after or should go after, then look at the money. I suspect it’s not just a money issue but looking at where the markets are.

"We’re all so busy looking after our own business and problems we don’t spend enough time looking at the big picture. Nobody usually thinks ahead 10 or 15 years. Whistler is living proof that if we look at what’s available world-wide, and how we can improve on it, we can do it."


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