Editorial 

The boom in B.C.’s tourism industry

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Between 1865 and 1885 the eastern terminus of the BX Stage Coach Line was the British Columbia town of Savona, named after Francois Savona who in 1859 established a ferry service across the Thompson River where it flows out of Kamloops Lake.

Today Savona is a nondescript town of about 700 people, nestled between Kamloops Lake and the TransCanada Highway, closer to Kamloops than Cache Creek. It’s cowboy country, with rolling, velvety-looking hills, tumbleweeds and a few rocky outcrops. The most visible signs of the local economy are the used mining equipment for sale, conveniently displayed for all motorists driving this section of the TransCanada, and the giant billboard announcing Surplus Herbie’s as the place for all your other needs.

But just a few minutes east of Savona is another incarnation of the new B.C. economy, or at least the economy outside of the Lower Mainland. Here, on 18,000 acres of former agricultural reserve land overlooking Kamloops Lake, is Tobiano. Or, at least it will be.

More than a decade in the approval process, Tobiano’s first amenity, a Thomas McBroom-designed golf course, will open in June. A marina, equestrian centre, pedestrian-friendly village and hotels will follow. Single-family lots start “from the mid $200,000s”, but most of those offered in the first phase of development have already been snapped up. All have views of the lake, which is Tobiano’s biggest asset. Otherwise it’s “…just over three hours by car from Vancouver, Whistler and the U.S. border. Tobiano is an easy drive to Seattle and the scenic destinations of Jasper, Edmonton, Banff and Calgary.”

Earlier this year, just a couple of hours up the TransCanada in Revelstoke, there was a similar run on recreational real estate. At Mount MacKenzie, which also has been more than a decade in the planning and approval process, $60 million worth of condos were sold in three hours. The units started at $310,000 and went up to $2 million. Mount MacKenzie, at the moment, has one double chairlift. It was bought, used, about 20 years ago. A new gondola is being installed this summer and real estate development is kicking into gear as the master plan for Mount MacKenzie takes shape.

The story is the same on the Sunshine Coast, at Rossland, on southern Vancouver Island, and throughout the Okanagan and Windermere valleys. Hundreds and hundreds of people are investing several hundred thousand dollars each in part-time properties at master-planned resorts — some with little more than a master plan.

It may be hypocritical for anyone from Whistler to criticize new resort development, but you have to wonder if the apparently insatiable demand for recreational real estate in B.C. today is fuelled by aging baby boomers’ fascination with owning a home on a golf course or at a ski area, or if it’s more of a reflection of a strong economy and conservative investment strategies.

And while the dollar figures some resort developers are getting are surprising, the level of resort development is not. Several years ago the Liberal government appointed a Resort Task Force to facilitate resort development across B.C. That was followed by Premier Gordon Campbell’s challenge to the tourism industry to double in size by 2015. In releasing its Spirit of 2010 Tourism Strategy three years ago the provincial government stated: In addition to various initiatives to create an investment friendly climate and to guide development in a sustainable and socially and culturally sensitive manner, the Province has demonstrated its commitment to the tourism industry in many direct ways.” It then listed investments in the Vancouver convention centre, the Olympics, delivering passenger rail service “to the B.C. Heartlands”, infrastructure and transportation improvements and investments in tourism facilities as examples of that commitment.

All true and all good for the tourism industry. And the timing — with the Olympics and a red-hot economy — couldn’t be better.

But the volume of recreational real estate coming on to the market in B.C., and the dollars being spent up front, harkens back to 1999 and the dot-com boom. For many people, investing $300,000 in a condo may make sense if a) they intend to use it a lot or b) it can be rented frequently, providing enough income to cover the mortgage. But if they can’t cover the mortgage, if there are just too many condos for prospective renters to choose from…

Even with growing convention business and world-wide attention on B.C. through the Olympics, are more condominiums and more pedestrian-friendly villages really the best way to build the tourism industry? Or is British Columbia following a formula for recreational real estate development that will make for a ubiquitous experience from one end of the province to the other?

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