Editorial 

The times they are a-changin’. Is Whistler?

Four years ago this month, while village business owners were debating where the Paralympic arena should go, Tourism Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb were commissioning a study of the Brandywine area's suitability for an airport.

It now seems almost a quaint notion: that as the Whistler economy gradually declined from 2002 to 2005 an airport, that would allow direct flights to Whistler, was considered one of the ways to further long-term business to the resort. Vail has one. Aspen, Jackson, Steamboat and Mammoth all have one. Surely an airport, that would accommodate private jets and major carriers like Alaska Airlines with its connections to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, was what Whistler needed.

Of course, the Paralympic arena was also seen by some as a way to revitalize the village and boost business.

Whistler, collectively, had become complacent. The U.S. exchange rate no longer made Whistler cheap for American visitors, and it was time to do something to stimulate the local economy. "Shock and awe" tactics to draw visitors to Whistler were suggested.

The Brandywine airport and the idea of regularly scheduled flights by a major carrier to the Pemberton Airport have dropped off the radar in the last few years. The airline business was hit by high fuel prices nearly two years ago and many of the big air carriers were over-leveraged when the full weight of the recession began to be felt last year.

Pemberton is still deciding what it wants its airport to become.

But Whistler worked its way out of the economic doldrums of 2005, slowly and gradually - until the general economic meltdown last fall. The emphasis shifted to "value," which in many cases meant prices dropped. Putting a couple of kids in ski school for the day no longer required getting a loan from a bank. Accommodation rates began to resemble a spectrum rather than a cartel. Service improved generally, and in particular the issue of multiple property managers in a building and only one front desk was tackled.

The message got out there and some of the people who had been priced out of Whistler, or found better value at other mountain resorts, came back. In particular, the regional visitors returned. Business, aided by the best marketing tool of all, good snow, grew through 2006, 2007 and early 2008. Until the recession left everyone with less disposable income than they thought they had.

Last winter was tough for all in the tourism business, which includes everyone in Whistler. Discounted hotel rooms - some severely discounted - have been available every day since Jan. 1. Restaurants have maintained their off-season specials through the summer. Real estate sales, which play a big role in bringing visitors to Whistler, were almost non-existent in the first quarter of the year. (They have rebounded in the last two months.) Some businesses have closed up and others are stretched thin.

But one underlying fact remains: there is more to do in Whistler, particularly in the summer, than ever before. And everything is more affordable than it has been in years. A summer day ticket for Whistler Blackcomb is $41.95 for an adult. For another $10 the ticket is good for two days. Further discounts are available if you buy online. The golf courses have brought their rates down in recent years. And it still costs nothing to ride most mountain bike trails, swim in the lakes, or wander through the village.

Some people understand this, but the suspicion is that many don't. Whistler is still seen by too many as a pricey, upscale, perhaps even elitist resort town.

The reality is somewhat different. Businesses understand that people today have less play money than they used to, and they've adjusted. Many have also come to realize that Whistler is overbuilt for the amount of business it does. "Sale" signs have been visible in retail store windows 12 months of the year for a few years now. Year-round hotel occupancy rates have never been above 60 per cent, which has always meant discounted rates much of the year.

And where a few years ago the trend among new businesses coming to Whistler seemed to be high end, some of the restaurants and businesses coming to Whistler this fall could be categorized as more "affordable" than high end.

All of which begs the question: is Whistler changing fundamentally from a high-end resort to an affordable resort, or is it broadening the spectrum of offerings and keeping pace with the financial times?

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