Whistler’s evolution


In biology, evolution is change in the heritable traits of a population over successive generations. This is usually influenced by interaction with the environment, such that the changed heritable trait increases the ability to survive and reproduce to promote the desireable trait.… Over time, this process can result in speciation, the development of new species from existing ones.

– Wikipedia


Is Whistler today the same species as the resort that was conceived more than 30 years ago, or has it just adapted and evolved as the world around it has changed?

During the Cold War, long before most people had even considered the Internet or global warming, a conscious decision was made to build an international mountain resort in the Coast Mountains north of Vancouver. The core elements were a pedestrian village located between two huge mountains that offered endless ski terrain, and a valley with several warm-water lakes. The basic assumptions were that it could be built, that it would attract skiers from around the world and that it would be a catalyst for other resort development in British Columbia.

Not everyone believed in this vision. Al Raine has told the story of how the NDP government of the early ’70s shot down his proposal to develop Powder Mountain with the comment that it wouldn’t be approving development of Crown land for a small minority of people pursuing an elite activity like skiing.

Raine fired back that tourism was an important industry in B.C., employing a lot of people who could be NDP supporters. The point hit home and the NDP became a critical supporter of the early Whistler vision.

Today, resort development is being encouraged all across the province and the tourism industry has been challenged to double in size by 2015.

Some of the details behind Whistler’s early development are also worth looking back on. In the early days the corporate world had little faith in Whistler’s vision, if an unwillingness to risk its own money can be interpreted as lack of faith. Hotel chains, franchises, banks and large development companies stayed well clear of Whistler. That meant two things: investment in village development, and then in the businesses in the village, was done by individuals — most of them from the Lower Mainland — rather than big companies; and because most of the investors were people with more faith than money, the size and scale of early buildings was smaller than we saw in later phases of Whistler’s development.

Today, there are still small businesses in Whistler but large chains and corporations are prominent.

The concept of a pedestrian village wasn’t unique to Whistler — it was borrowed from Vail, among other places — but it is now quite common. Where Whistler did break new ground was in the concept of “warm beds” — making sure there are people in the village to give the place vibrancy. This, of course, was done through covenants that limited the number of days owners could use their condos and required that the units be placed in a rental pool the rest of the time.

Today, the concept is facing some challenges. The units have become tougher to sell and some are in need of renovations. At Kimberley, they have done away with a similar covenant.

The first plans for Whistler Village also included an ice arena, but when the town ran into financial trouble the ice arena became a conference centre. Whistler has been going after conference business ever since.

But so is everyone else. Not only are there now several hotels in Whistler with large conference facilities, but most of the resorts being developed across the province are also pursuing conference business.

These changes from the early vision of Whistler are part of the town’s evolution. Whistler has, for the most part, adapted to these changes and many others that weren’t foreseen 30 years ago, including the advent of mountain biking and snowboarding.

But of course there have been all kinds of other changes in the last 30 years, both within and outside of Whistler. Some of the most important external changes are challenging some of the basic assumptions behind the original Whistler vision. Things like the cost of energy and its impact on transportation, the ethnic makeup of the Lower Mainland and the West Coast, the looming general labour shortage and the increasingly unpredictable climate. Some or all may have severe impacts on a town that was built on the premise that people will want to travel from afar to experience the mountains in winter.

Whistler has adapted pretty well to changes and challenges in the past — witness its growth as a summer resort, the rise and fall of different tourism markets, and adapting to increased competition from other resorts and other leisure activities.

But can Whistler continue to evolve from its original concept to meet these and many other new challenges, or does it need to become a whole new species?

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