Millions in tourism dollars to be lost during highway upgrades 

Seven years of construction, delays on Highway 99

Over the course of fixing up the Sea to Sky Highway, Whistler is expected to lose $115 million in visitor spending, according to estimates from a KPMG draft report.

The loss represents a decrease in tourism revenues ranging from 0.3 to 2.4 per cent each year of construction.

The report, which was presented to council on Monday night, states: "The impacts are not particularly large in proportional terms and may be difficult to track given normal annual variations in tourism activity."

In 2004, the first year of construction, there is an estimated $4 million reduction in spending out of more than $1 billion in total estimated spending.

"While $4 million by itself is a hefty chunk of money, in the context of a billion dollars of normal tourism spending, it’s not a whole heck of a lot and falls into the realm of seasonal variations," said Jack Stuempel, with the Ministry of Transportation.

Stuempel also pointed out that the losses in 2004 are a bit of an anomaly within the larger construction window because the work is not slated to begin until the middle of that year.

The peak impact on tourism spending is likely to occur in 2008. That year tourism spending is projected to be $1.1 billion. The loss from construction is expected to be $26 million. At that time there will be a projected loss of 209 jobs from almost 22,500 jobs and a $12 million reduction in wages and salaries out of $561 million in total wages and salaries.

In 2008 the work between Horseshoe Bay and Lions Bay should be completed and the focus will be on Lions Bay to Squamish and Cheakamus Canyon to Whistler.

Mayor Hugh O’Reilly said he was not surprised about the potential impact to tourism spending after working through various scenarios of volumes and flows.

KPMG, which produced the draft report, provided Tourism Whistler with potential road closure scenarios and Tourism Whistler then developed estimates of the impacts of the road closure scenarios.

KPMG used the information to create a financial and economic impact model to determine the overall impacts.

"This is just a component within a much bigger equation with many variables that are fluid," said O’Reilly.

He said the impacts to tourism spending could be much worse during a bad snow year, for example.

"These (numbers) are only estimates," he said.

"There are so many other factors that come into play."

Stuempel said tourism spending may have decreased of its own accord regardless of the construction on the highway as congestion and safety issues continue to plague the road.

"The impact of the congestion on the highway and the safety record of the highway have also contributed to a sense that it won’t take much before traffic starts going somewhere, before the tourism traffic starts selecting other destinations," said Stuempel.

As well, an improved highway will be beneficial to tourism and economic development in the long run, he said.

While the KPMG estimates are for the major road construction planned between 2004 and 2009, O’Reilly said the test is really going to come during the $18.2 million Culliton Creek upgrades currently underway and continuing to 2005. Approximately 275,000 cubic metres of rock will have to be blasted and removed between Culliton Creek and the Cheakamus Canyon.

He added that the key to mitigating the loss in tourism dollars is to make sure that Ministry of Transportation sticks to the construction schedules it is posting.

Tourism Whistler President Suzanne Denbak has been named to a 10-member regional transportation advisory committee established by the provincial government.

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