Mexican tourist visa hitting Whistler businesses 

Tourism Whistler stats show steady improvement in visitor numbers

Some local businesses feel new requirements for tourist visas for Mexicans entering Canada are causing a profit loss during what used to be a booming season.

April is the month that Mexican nationals celebrate Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Since a 2009 tourist visa requirement was put in place to quell the number of Mexican refugee claims in Canada, Whistler's rental businesses say they have been feeling a pinch where they previously enjoyed the flush. However, information provided by Tourism Whistler indicates the numbers are showing steady improvement.

"It's a disaster, it's stupid, it's ridiculous. I'd say our numbers are less than half and it's not just Mexico, it's Venezuela as well," said Sandy Black, owner of Affinity Sports in Whistler and former Intrawest vice-president of retail and rental operations for North America.

"The process to obtain a Canadian visa for the Mexicans is very cumbersome, it takes a long time. They have to send away their airplane ticket and for the U.S. they can turn it around in 24 or 48 hours, it's way less of a hassle, so they're going to Vail. We've really lost the entire thing."

Black isn't the only rental business to notice a change. At Ski Butlers, a full service equipment rental operation, co-owner Karin Schulze said a dearth of bookings is suggesting a quiet April lays ahead.

"Unfortunately, I'd love to say 'yes, we have huge bookings,' but we haven't so far seen anything specific from the Mexicans yet," she said, adding that she's hoping for last minute calls from Mexican clients. "Previously we have had bookings by now. It's definitely a different year."

Efforts to regain the Mexican market have been made by tourist organizations like Tourism Whistler (TW) and Tourism BC, which have led to improvements in the application process. Visa documents previously only available in English have now been translated into Spanish and on top of their regular ski marketing, the two tourism commissions spent a week in Mexico City hosting reservation training seminars for travel operators on how to best guide their clients through the procedure.

"Certainly the first year it came into place had an immediate impact on business," said Kim Hood, sales manager at Tourism Whistler.

"Since that time there has been a lot of education on how to fill in the visa application - there were a lot of operational adjustments that had to be made, there was definitely an industry effort - we had to accept really quickly that this process was in place and not going anywhere.

"Considering that we lost a significant competitive advantage compared to when we didn't have to have the visa, in a short time we've seen some turn around but there is still work to be done for sure."

According to Hood, Whistler is losing business to other destinations because the approval of the visas is inconsistent, which is causing frustration in the marketplace.

The Canadian government has expressed no interest in reversing the requirement, though Sea to Sky Conservative MP John Weston said waiving it is possible in the future. Weston supported the original motion to implement the visas in 2009 based on the number of refugee claims from Mexicans in Canada.

"Once our government is convinced we won't once again awaken the flow of refuge claimants without substantiation then we would waive the requirement," he said. "I'm certainly conscious of the importance of tourism to the corridor and I have been in regular touch with Minister Jason Kenney (Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism) on this issue."

Representatives from other ski resorts in B.C. have indicated their tourism numbers weren't negatively affected by the visa requirement because they didn't have large numbers of Mexican tourists to lose. At Big White, Senior Vice-President Michael Ballingal said direct flights from Mexico to a nearby airport has helped keep what business they have steady, but that Mexico remains an insignificant market for the hill.

Sun Peaks Mountain Resort's President of Tourism Chris Nicolson said the same about his resort.

Information collected by Tourism Whistler indicates tourism numbers for this month are projecting ahead of the previous two years. Air Canada passenger loads on direct flights from Mexico to Vancouver are hovering at around 75 per cent - considered strong by industry standards.

"Our two biggest ski operators and specialists that work out of our market - one in Mexico and one in Canada - have been reporting that business has been steadily improving over the last couple of months and they're seeing slightly above the past year or two," continued Hood, who speculated that local businesses might see their sales improve once Mexican tourists are on the ground.

"One operator is reporting up to a 15 per cent increase and those numbers were specifically related to Whistler."

Overall, Easter is pacing down compared to previous years, though Tourism Whistler staff attributes this more to the time at which Easter 2011 falls.

"Easter 2011 is one of the latest Easter periods in recent memory, so that's why numbers are relatively lower," said Breton Murphy, senior manager of communications for TW.

"As is the case each April at the end of the winter season we see numbers decline from the beginning of the month to the end."

Data available through Citizen and Immigration Canada states refugee claims from Mexico almost tripled between 2005 and 2009, making it the number one source country for claims. In 2008, more than 9,400 claims filed in Canada came from Mexican nationals, representing 25 per cent of all claims received. Of the Mexican claims reviewed and finalized in 2008 by the Immigration and Refugee Board, an independent administrative tribunal, only 11 per cent were accepted.



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