Fragile U.S. market prompts CTC study 

Tourism industry braces for introduction of new passport rules

U.S. visits from the West Coast to Whistler are down this summer, despite a strong August.

It’s a trend being witnessed right across Canada and it’s worrisome enough that the Canadian Tourism Commission has launched a task force to investigate it.

"The task force was formed to investigate why this is occurring and try and get at the underlying facts about why (U.S. visitors) are not coming," said Tom Penney, vice president of research and planning at the CTC.

The segment most notably down is the short haul drive-to market.

That’s a big concern for Whistler as visitors from Washington state are a key component of the resort’s market.

The latest figures from Tourism Whistler show visitors from Washington state between the beginning of May and the end of August were down 17 per cent, while those from California were down 12 per cent. The month of August did buck the trend with Washington state visitors up 38 per cent, and California visitors up 40 per cent.

"Whistler is not alone," said Barett Fisher, president of Tourism Whistler. "U.S. business has been down in Vancouver, Victoria, Banff, Lake Louise and Ontario – we are all challenged from the U.S. market."

A recent report in the Tourism Sector Monitor found that the issues with the greatest impact on U.S. travel were the rise in gas prices, cheaper airfares to destinations other than Canada, the strong Canadian dollar and the residual impact of the terrorism attack on New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

The number of U.S. travellers has declined every year since 2001. The downturn predated the events of 9/11 but was exacerbated by them.

It’s likely the rise in the cost of gasoline has had a significant impact. The U.S. average gasoline price in April 2005 was more than twice as much as the price in January 2002 (US$1.13) and it’s unlikely any relief from high prices will come in the near future.

The strong Canadian dollar is also playing a key role. Between January 2002 and December 2004 when the value of the U.S. dollar dropped 23.8 per cent the number of same-day U.S. visitors to B.C. slumped 12.8 per cent.

"The strong Canadian currency is a huge issue," said Fisher. "There probably is not a clear understanding of what the exchange rate is doing… but when you do look at pricing on the Internet we have lost a 30 per cent advantage.

"We are dealing with that head on. As a resort we are coming out with better value packages, such as 30 per cent savings if you book early, and we recognize that we have to be more aggressive."

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