Tourism and the airline industry, part II

A study done last year by Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners found that approximately 60 per cent of total skier visits to Whistler-Blackcomb came by way of airline travel. The study further found that about 30 per cent of B.C.’s 6.25 million skier visits in the winter of 2001-02 arrived by air.

Those are pretty significant numbers for the ski industry and those towns and businesses that depend on it, as the B.C. Resort Task Force noted in its recently completed report.

The tourism industry in B.C. as a whole also recognizes its dependence on air transportation. The problem is tourism is at the mercy of an airline industry in chaos at the moment.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and their chilling effect on air travel exposed most of the traditional airlines for the bloated, over-extended entities they had become. But even before 9/11 the traditional airlines in North America and Europe had been under siege by discount carriers. In order to compete with the discount airlines the traditional carriers have been slashing costs and reducing capacity.

The low-cost airlines have been proliferating and increasing their capacity while the traditional airlines are shrinking, but most of the low-cost carriers have concentrated their efforts on a limited number of profitable routes. Alternatively, some discount airlines offer multiple flights to numerous destinations, but from a single hub.

The result of this battle between the traditional airlines and the discount airlines is that there are more choices for flyers in cities along the heavily populated Atlantic seaboard, but more remote parts of the continent, such as British Columbia, are less well served.

In Europe, the discount airline business is also booming, forcing traditional national airlines to fend off the challenges. Again, most traditional carriers have reacted by cutting costs and reducing capacity, particularly in inter-continental flights. Last spring, for instance, there were more U.K. skiers interested in coming to Whistler than there were airline seats available.

The biggest loser in the battle between discount and traditional airlines appears to be international travel, which hits tourism in B.C. The good news is that the discount airline business, at least in North America, is maturing and some discount airlines are starting to add international flights.

But given the instability of the industry at present, few airlines are in the mood for experimenting with new routes or adding capacity at uncertain times of the year. This inflexibility also hinders parts of the tourism industry in B.C. Air Canada, for instance, offers direct flights from Vancouver to Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, but only during the summer months. Northwest Airlines flies direct to Vancouver from Detroit and Memphis, but only in the summer.

Direct flights between these cities and Vancouver in the winter would be of huge benefit to the winter resorts in B.C. Of course, convincing these airlines to continue these routes in the winter is part of the larger effort the tourism industry must make to show people that winter vacations don’t necessarily mean flying to someplace warm and sitting on a beach. This is something the ski industry across the province (and across the continent) needs to tackle collectively. Working with charter airlines, most of which already specialize in flights to vacation destinations, may be a starting point.

Which leads to another tourism-airline issue: marketing, or lack thereof. Back in the days when Canada had two national airlines one of them was a willing and helpful partner in marketing tourism destinations like Whistler. Canadian Airlines played a significant role in Whistler and British Columbia’s marketing efforts in Europe, supporting appearances at ski and travel shows, working with tour operators and travel agents and helping publicize tourism destinations through publications and co-op advertising. Since Air Canada swallowed up Canadian Airlines most of that marketing support has disappeared, as Air Canada has been busy merging one airline into another, launching new discount airlines and appealing to government and employees for financial help.

So where does all this leave tourism in B.C. in the context of the premier’s challenge to the industry to double in size in the next 10 years?

The provincial government appears serious in its efforts to help tourism. The resort task force and funding for travel infrastructure improvements are encouraging. If the federal government would take a similar view and get rid of some of the regulations that continue to prop up the traditional airlines and ease some of the tax burden on travellers, that would help. And the tourism industry must continue to form marketing partnerships to get the word out.

But it appears it will be another few years before the airlines and the airline industry sort themselves out.

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