Defining the new normal

For nearly seven years there was one date indelibly stamped in the minds of people planning for Whistler's future and their future in Whistler. February 2010 shaped and focused decisions on spending, staffing, building and capacity at municipal hall, Tourism Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb and most other businesses in town. There would be a bright future after the Olympics but Whistler had to be prepared to put on a great show for the world in February 2010 to take full advantage.

And we did. And now we're trying to figure out what to focus on in the post-Olympic, post-recession period.

There seems to be a longing to get back to "normal" in Whistler, to return to the good times, before the economy nosedived in 2008, to when hotels didn't have to discount rooms 10 months of the year.

It's a dream that overlooks reality in most of the Western world today.

At the provincial, state and federal levels, governments in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and virtually every other industrialized country are facing deficits and long-term debt problems. And few seem to have a plan to resolve their financial woes. Most are simply relying on growth in the economy to turn the situation around. While that is part of a plan, more and more economists are pointing out that it is not going to be enough.

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote last weekend that the Western world is entering a very different, difficult period.

"Two trends of enormous consequence are washing over the world: the restructuring of Western economies to deal with debts, and the new balance of power and influence caused by the new relations between lenders and borrowers."

At some point, as the Greeks are discovering, governments either have to cut expenses, raise taxes or a combination of the two. They have to do this because health care costs have been rising steadily and will continue to do so as baby boomers age and obesity grows. In B.C., health care now accounts for more than 45 per cent of the provincial budget. And it's still not enough. The situation is similar in provinces across Canada.

At the same time education costs are increasing, infrastructure is aging, there is demand for more energy and more services. Governments are not going to be able to do it all, as we're starting to see. Difficult choices have to be made. They will be felt in areas like daycare, physical education and the arts. Those types of cuts, along with tax increases, have an impact on people's time and money, which affects their ability to vacation in a place like Whistler.

With the level of borrowing, inflation is also a concern. Inflation will add to the cost of paying off government, business and personal debts.

And unemployment remains relatively high - 10 per cent in the United States and across Europe, ranging from 3.5 per cent in Norway to 19 per cent in Spain. In Canada, the U.K. and Germany it's about eight per cent.

None of this bodes well for a place like Whistler. We're not going to see the people or the spending that were around in the mid-90s or mid-2000s because money and, increasingly, time aren't as plentiful.

So where does Whistler focus its efforts?

One of Whistler's largest, perhaps its most overriding business problem, has to do with scale. There are more beds than can be filled on a regular basis. And many other businesses in town are based on the premise that the beds will be filled. At times - Christmas, Easter/spring break, the Olympics - occupancy levels are close to capacity. But that's not enough to carry businesses through the year.

The financial constraints that governments, and by extension consumers, are facing are not going to be resolved quickly. And that's going to hamper destination tourism.

So where does that leave Whistler? Is the answer more convention business? Cultural tourism? Day trippers? Education? Catering to part-time residents in the hope they spend more time here? Building interest among immigrants and ethnic groups that don't come from a mountain culture?

Economics and demographics suggest there isn't going to be a return to a pre-Olympic "normal." So how do we define the new normal for Whistler?



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