Interesting that one week after Whistler-Blackcomb recorded its two-millionth skier of the season, federal Parks Minister Andy Mitchell announces there will be a cap on the number of skiers allowed in Banff and Jasper National Parks. The cap, which has not been set, is not expected to be a problem for the ski areas in Banff — Sunshine Village, Norquay and Skiing Louise — or Marmot Basin in Jasper. In fact, they all currently have approved capacities — they just aren’t enforced — and they fall short of those capacities. Sunshine, for instance, has an approved capacity of 6,500 skiers per day but can’t get more than 4,500 people on the mountain with its existing facilities, according to a resort spokesman. Most ski areas are limited by lift capacity, and to a lesser extent by the number of beds in the area. In the case of Banff, capping the number of skiers is in effect limiting development of new lifts in the park, something that the three ski areas have been living with for some time. By contrast, B.C. ski areas operate under the provincial ski area policy, which provides development rights as a reward for putting in new lifts. It’s not as easy as it once was to get approval for a new chair in B.C., and they are a lot more expensive than they used to be, but the basic formula of development rights in exchange for uphill capacity still exists. Interestingly, the limiting factor in Whistler may not be the mountains’ capacity for lifts — as Whistler Mountain has more terrain than will be needed to comfortably handle all of Whistler’s residents and guests at buildout — but the cap on development of beds in the valley. According to resort planners’ mathematical models, even when the valley reaches buildout and if there’s an efficient system of transporting day skiers from the Lower Mainland to Whistler, the two mountains will still have more than enough terrain to handle all those skiers and boarders. So at some point there may be no incentive to keep adding lifts, unless the development rights earned for those lifts are transferable elsewhere or the ceiling on development in the valley is forgotten. But the Banff cap and Whistler-Blackcomb’s two million skier visits in a season does bring up the matter of the quality of the ski experience. Skiing and boarding are personal experiences on a mountain, and some sense of solitude is inherent in those individual experiences. At the same time, sharing those personal experiences with friends can increase the pleasure of the whole skiing or boarding experience. And the quality of any number of other things, such as equipment rentals, instruction, meals and service, all contribute to the overall experience. Increasing the quality of these things is generally achieved by spending more money, which is usually predicated on more skiers. It’s a chicken and egg thing, of course; improving services and facilities usually attracts more skiers and boarders, who demand more services, facilities and more terrain. The sheer size of Whistler and Blackcomb mean that even though there were days this past winter when the high alpine was closed and it was congested below tree-line, there is still lots of room to grow. And despite the two million-plus visitors this year, the mountains and the resort handled them pretty well. Most of the increase in skier visits was mid-week. There also appeared to be fewer lineups on the highway heading south this winter than there were last year.


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