August 25, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

Turning up the heat 

A steady influx of visitors during summer months has turned Whistler into a year-round tourist machine

click to flip through (4) STORY BY ERIC PLUMMER - Turning up the heat – A steady influx of visitors during summer months has turned Whistler into a year-round tourist machine
  • Story by Eric Plummer
  • Turning up the heat – A steady influx of visitors during summer months has turned Whistler into a year-round tourist machine

Charlie Doyle recalls a time when the few people who lived in Whistler during the ski season left during the warmer summer months, leaving behind a quiet mountain valley of lakes and rivers.

"Basically there were 600 people here then. All of the people who owned cabins went home at the end of May and that was pretty much it," recalls Doyle of his first years in Whistler, a time long before summer tourism became a factor. "There was no liquor store, you had to go to Squamish to get a bottle of wine."

That was in the early 1970s, when the community was in its first decade as a ski resort. A little more than a generation later the area has been completely transformed into a bustling hub for British Columbia's tourism, where the number of summertime visitors has eclipsed activity over the ski season. It's an indication that the rest of the world finally realized what became clear to Doyle over 40 years ago when he decided to permanently relocate from Ontario to the mountain town.

"I came here in the middle of one winter, stayed that winter and went back to Ontario," he says. "That fall I decided to come back here. There was no real choice, Thunder Bay or Whistler."

Evolving into a four-season resort

Over its 50 years as a ski resort Whistler has established an international reputation as a destination for wintertime outdoor play. But in recent years, visitation has steadily grown outside of the ski season, a time that was once considered slow by comparison.

According to figures tracked by Tourism Whistler, the total number of individual visits to the resort each summer has grown from 1.26 million in 2008 to 1.99 million last year. Over that period the winter season, which runs from November to late April, has usually drawn just over 1 million visits annually. Past winters had busier days than in the warmer months, with more tourists on the hills and in the village. But this changed in the summer of 2014, when an average of 16,317 visitors came to Whistler each day, more than the daily visitation recorded over the following winter. Even more people came in 2015, and this summer is expected to bring a similar turnout based on bookings and Tourism Whistler's estimates.

"Right now we are on pace to be on par with last summer, if we're lucky, a little bit up," observes Meredith Kunza, Tourism Whistler's research manager.

The drop of the Canadian loonie to less than US80 cents has helped lure more American visitors to Whistler, as they can stretch their dollars further than south of the border, added Kunza. But the dollar disparity has also encouraged more Canadians to explore this country's attractions rather than face higher vacation costs down south. In comparison to the same period last year, 22 per cent fewer B.C. residents crossed into the states over the first four months of 2016, according to Statistics Canada data.

"The exchange rate can't be hurting us in any way," observes Kunza. "It's going to be contributing to growth from U.S. markets. But also those Canadian, regional B.C. guests, they're going to have a little bit more incentive to travel in Canada rather than leaving."

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden believes that the rise of summer tourism follows the resort's long-term goal of becoming a four-season destination.

"This is a good news story because it wasn't that long ago that the village was quiet from May until November," she says. "We used to say that you could let a cannon go off in the village in October and nobody would know the difference."

A seasonal transition

The summer brings an entirely different situation now, particularly for Whistler's eating and drinking establishments. The restaurant and pub business has grown to encompass the largest area of consumer spending over the warmer months with $403 million in 2014/15, according to a recent report from the resort municipality's Economic Partnership Initiative Committee.

It's a tourism climate that fills the resort to its capacity over some weekends in the summer, says Brenton Smith, general manager for O&R Entertainment, a local company that runs five bars and restaurants.

"When I moved here I worked for Whistler mountain in the winter season, and there weren't any jobs here in the summertime, so I moved down to Vancouver for the first summer and came back the next season," recalls the Whistler resident of 23 years. "But now it seems to me, as an operator, that summer is much busier than wintertime. I'm sure it isn't for Whistler Blackcomb, but it definitely is for a village operator."

Wilhelm-Morden sees the growth of summer visitation as a natural progression for the resort, as the warmer months offer visitors a wider variety of outdoor activities.

"I've very often said to people who come here on a winter seasonal basis that they really ought to try the summer," she says. "There's so much more to do here in the summer than there is in the winter."

Besides the existing network of hiking and mountain biking trails, Whistler's event roster for this summer is an exploration into using the resort location to its fullest extent. Attractions include a concert series that brought the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to the mountain town for July 1st and 2nd, the yoga, music, food and wine festival Wanderlust, as well as a range of athletic challenges like the Tough Mudder competitions.

Last year Mudderella was introduced in late September, injecting business at a traditionally quiet time with the addition of the running and obstacle challenge for women.

"That's a weekend that was just completely empty at the end of a month that was starting to get a little bit poor in weather, and now it's practically filling the resort," says Smith, crediting Tourism Whistler for promoting the new event. "If they continue to do that, there certainly is more room for more business."

A different kind of tourist

The strong growth of tourism during Whistler's warmer months now brings approximately 600,000 more unique visits than during the winter. But the ski season remains the resort's economic backbone, accounting for 69 per cent of tourism spending, according to 2014-15 figures released by the municipality. Why is there such a disparity? Summers see more tourists from B.C. and Washington state, while a larger proportion of people venture from farther abroad to the mountain destination during the ski season.

"There's more people in the summer, but they aren't staying as long," says Kunza. "So when you actually count out how many room nights are in the village or how many people are actually walking around the village on any given day, that's where the numbers are more on par summer to winter."

People are spending less money per day during the warmer months as well. In the summer of 2014 regional visitors from B.C. and Washington spent an average of $114 a day while at the resort, while destination tourists from elsewhere in North America and abroad spent $148. Over the following winter, regional visitors injected $145 a day into the local economy, but travellers from farther away spent $348 for each day in Whistler. Destination tourists comprised 60 per cent, or over $225 million, of visitor spending over the warmer months of 2014, but during the winter that followed, these travellers accounted for 88 per cent of spending — totalling $733.5 million.

A "tourist machine" with its sights on the international market

Since the decline of the forestry industry in the 1980s the growth of tourism has become a vital facet of B.C.'s economic diversification. Over its history as a resort, Whistler has led the provincial movement to attract more tourist spending, and now brings in one quarter of the total revenue collected from international guests. Over the 2014-15 fiscal year the resort's consumer spending totaled $1.44 billion, with visitors accounting for 85 per cent of this economic injection.

With the stakes this high, Whistler's business leaders have kept a close eye on other mountain resorts around the world, notably Aspen, Vale, Breckenridge and European destinations.

To ensure it keeps an edge on the international competition Whistler Blackcomb announced the $345 million Renaissance Long Term Strategic Plan in the spring. The multi-phase initiative focuses on "weather independent" experiences that do not rely on a good snow base, including an aquatic centre on the upper base of Blackcomb Mountain, a suspension bridge extending across Whistler Mountain's peaks, more hiking trails, an expansion to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park at Creekside, a treetop rope course, and high-end real estate developments on Blackcomb.

In the April statement announcing the Renaissance project, WB's CEO Dave Brownlie emphasized Whistler's potential beyond just being a skiing destination.

"This is a very exciting growth initiative that we expect will increase your-round visitation to Whistler, insulate our resort from variable weather conditions and strengthen Whistler's position as one of the premier mountain resort destinations in the world," states Brownlie.

Can the roads handle more tourist traffic?

Despite the excitement surrounding the Renaissance initiative, serious questions are surfacing in the community around Whistler's capacity to take on more tourists. The increase in summer visitation to the region has brought heavier traffic on the Sea to Sky Highway, particularly during the Pemberton Music Festival in July. Before the four-day event attracted thousands to area, festival organizers issued a news release advising the public to plan travel in advance due to the expected highway congestion.

On an average day the resort's population triples to over 30,000 people. For Whistler residents this makes traffic a part of everyday life.

"People who live here generally become quite fairly aware of that and decide that going to the liquor store Saturday at 6 o'clock might not be the best thing to do," says Doyle.

Brownlie says the Renaissance attractions are not expected to worsen the current traffic situation, as the project is designed to drive up business during "off-peak periods," bringing more destination tourists who are coming to Whistler during a vacation.

"The project aims to increase visitation from long-haul markets where guests are less likely to travel over the weekend and bring their own car," says Brownlie, adding that daily traffic to the resort would not severely increase over the Renaissance implementation. "Our estimates indicate only 18 per cent of incremental Whistler visits will drive up just for the day."

Full-time employees forced to live in their cars

An even more pressing issue for many Whistler residents is the availability of affordable housing — or even any accommodation at all. Home values have soared in tune with Vancouver's real estate market, exceeding $1.28 million for a typical detached house in July. Last year Whistler faced a one-per-cent vacancy rate, the lowest in a decade, according to the Whistler Housing Authority's 2016 Business and Financial Plan. But 2016 is expected to see an even more severe shortage of 0.5-per-cent vacancy.

The situation has forced hundreds of residents to live in their vehicles or camp in the community's parks, says Cheryl Skribe, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society. This is not the first time people in Whistler have struggled to find shelter. But it's a different situation than when the resort was gearing up for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Skribe adds, a time marked by temporary employees desperately seeking accommodation. Many of the people who are currently camping out work full-time and have been longtime residents in the community.

"We're seeing more people having to resort to living in tents and vehicles than we ever have before," Skribe says. "Long-term locals are having to make very, very difficult choices around their housing because their current housing is coming to an end, for whatever reason. They're resorting to some very difficult situations in order to stay in Whistler."

"Affordability and cost of living also contribute to the staffing issues," notes the Economic Partnership Committee's recent report.

"We've recognized that as being a very important subject for our community since we created the Whistler Housing Authority," acknowledges Wilhelm-Morden.

She says that the demand for housing has fluctuated over the years in response to the changing economic climate.

"In combination with a downturn in the economy, we didn't have the significant demand for affordable housing," says Wilhelm-Morden. "To the extent that there was available supply, that's now all been taken up. With the economy just booming the way it is there's an increased demand for resident-restricted housing."

Some of the campers and people sleeping in their cars might be able to secure a roof by the winter with a WHA project nearing completion to bring 65 below-market rental units above the Rainbow Commercial Plaza. The housing authority is also developing more homes for Whistler employees in Cheakamus Crossing, bringing a total of 200 additional beds to the community by next year through both initiatives.

But a look at the WHA's waiting list indicates that more is needed to manage Whistler's housing issue. The housing authority's 2016 plan cites 410 residents in line to live in an affordable rental, plus another 466 on a registered list to buy property.

"We're at a very critical part in the need for some very strong conversation around what our housing looks like today and going forward," emphasizes Skribe. "This last six months to a year has been fairly dramatic in the effects to long-term locals."

The municipality is also looking into the impacts of Airbnb and other practices of homeowners renting their suites to vacationers.

"We're looking at how that's impacting secondary suites," says Wilhelm-Morden.

Housing shortage forces business to adapt

Whistler's housing shortage has challenged businesses to attract and retain enough quality employees. The resort houses 78 per cent of its workforce, surpassing the municipality's goal of 75. But in 2015 a worker shortage forced some shops and restaurants to close their doors.

"Despite the fact that the resort had the busiest summer on record, local businesses struggled to stay open at full capacity due to a shortage of employees," states the economic partnership report.

"It always has been a challenge in Whistler," says Smith of the demand for employees. "I remember when I was a cook I would always have three or four places trying to get me to work for them."

The restaurant and pub manager has seen the worker shortage force Whistler's businesses to become more efficient, training the employees they can get to a higher service standard.

"It seems to me with accommodation so limited, you get to select from who managed to achieve accommodations — and that doesn't necessarily mean that their skill set meets what your requirements are," Smith says. "You have to hire them anyway and try and train people up."

Whistler Blackcomb, the community's largest employer, manages 1,235 housing units for its workers. More could be coming with the Renaissance expansion, says Brownlie.

"We are looking at options for more employee housing while continuing to manage the existing bed units as effectively as possible," he says.

But it's always been tough for Whistler's workers to find accommodation, observes Doyle. He's seen housing issues since he settled in Whistler over 40 years ago.

"It's always been an issue in Whistler, even when there was 600 people living here," he says. "The thing is we have created this tourist machine that must be fed. For capitalistic reasons your company, or whatever you do, isn't a success unless it grows 10 per cent a year."

Summertime has created a frenetic retail climate for those in the service industry pushing to keep up with Whistler's growing demands, says Smith.

"You don't gain much weight because you're usually sweating all day," he says. "Anyone in the kitchen gets a free meal, so that helps out a lot with the affordability issue."

Careers, "McJobs" and "living the dream"

On Aug. 8 it became clear how closely the international tourism market was watching Whistler's growth, when Vale Resorts offered $1.4 billion to purchase Whistler Blackcomb — almost half a million more than WB's estimated market value before the deal was announced. The two corporations are proceeding with the sale and expect to finalize it this fall.

With the sale Whistler joins 11 other mountain destinations Vale currently manages in the U.S. and Australia, bringing in a new era of the resort's evolution as a year-round tourist destination.

Slow periods have become increasingly rare, but Whistler's mayor doesn't foresee the number of residents increasing dramatically.

"We've got a cap on our growth, so we don't see a lot of significant increase in the growth of residents," says Wilhelm-Morden. "As far as the growth of visitors is concerned, we'll continue to accommodate that demand by ensuring our product is always as good as it can be."

It's become a very different Whistler than the mountain village Doyle settled in over 40 years ago.

"If you're really into getting away from it all, Whistler isn't the place anymore — whereas it was in the '70s," he observes. "Early on nobody would move here for career. In those days people were moving here getting away from careers, people who were engineers from Switzerland, people who were bankers from Toronto.

"Lots of people come here for careers, and there's also a lot of people who get a McJob and hang out, live the dream kind of thing," he adds.

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