Visitor numbers on a roller coaster ride 

Bookings up through Easter, down slightly for April

Whistler continues to be a big draw, despite confusion over new passport requirements for land border crossings, record gas prices, a higher Canadian dollar, and economic uncertainty south of the border.

According to Breton Murphy, manager of corporate and member communications for Tourism Whistler, projections suggest that bookings through the end of March are higher than last year, while April bookings are down slightly.

“The second half of the month is trending positively, and a big part of that is the fact that Easter is in March this year,” he said. “When we look at April this far out, and these are only projections, but we’re expected not to be as strong as last year. Things still look good to the end of the season, but with Easter in March this year we knew coming in that April would be down.”

While December visitor numbers were up significantly, up five per cent over 2006 with more than 90 per cent occupancy reported in the village, January 2008 fell just short of 2007.

“January 2007 was almost on par with our best January ever (2001), so to fall just short is still quite strong,” said Murphy.

Tourism Whistler is still putting together numbers for February, but expects that numbers will be up slightly over last year.

After April, when then ski season winds down, Murphy says the resort has good reason to be cautiously optimistic.

“If you look at the work we’ve done resort-wide to develop a broader suite of products to complement our mainstay activities of mountain biking and golf… and given what we’ve seen so far with the softening of the U.S. economy and weakness of the U.S. dollar, and challenges with passport legislation… we’re in a good position,” he said. “All the challenges we’ve dealt with in the past… come back to the value messaging that is resonating well with short haul U.S. visitors.”

According to Murphy, Americans make up one-third of overnight visitors to the resort, and visitors from Washington state make up the majority of U.S. visitors.

“We have a link to a study that indicated that Americans still intend to travel in the summer of ’08, but length of stay, total spend, and distance traveled from home is expected to shrink,” he said, adding that the economy of the Pacific Northwest has not been as affected by larger financial worries as other parts of the U.S.

“The research supports what we’ve been seeing in the summer — shorter stays, last minute travel… focusing on the regional market in the summer and the value we’re offering is going to be key,” said Murphy.

While there is still some confusion about passports, Murphy says that Tourism Whistler and its partner organizations like Tourism Vancouver have been successful in getting the word out to visitors. Originally, all Americans were required to have a passport by Jan. 1, 2008, but that requirement has been softened somewhat, thanks to lobbying by groups on both sides of the border. As of Jan. 31, people entering the United States are required to have a government issued photo I.D. such as a driver’s license, and proof of citizenship such as birth certificate; a valid passport; a Nexus or Fast Card; a state-issued enhanced driver’s licence (now available in B.C. and Washington state); or a U.S. Military I.D. with Military Travel Orders.

Unless State and provincial governments are successful in convincing the U.S. government to push back implementation even further, government issued photo I.D. and proof of citizenship will no longer be accepted after June 2009.

Most of the feedback on the new requirement has been anecdotal, but Murphy says they will continue to watch the numbers closely. So far he says it hasn’t been a major factor, and most visitors are aware of the changes.

As for gas prices, Murphy says Whistler is working to understand what markets will be affected and is working on strategies to offset any negative disincentives to travel.

“Whether its fuel prices, the low dollar, border delays or passport legislation, our research department is doing a lot of great work to understand who will be impacted by these different factors so we’re better equipped to respond,” said Murphy. “We’re in control of some factors, like how well we do in providing value in terms of price and… product.”

One example was an agreement worked out last year to offer $99 trips to Vancouver from California. Another is the Book Early and Save promotions offered at the start of the season, which are continuing to bring visitors to the resort.

Murphy says one way that Whistler is offering value is by taking U.S. cash at par with Canadian money. Whistler-Blackcomb has been offering that option all season, and other Whistler businesses are encouraged to do the same.

“If the dollar is close, then let’s ensure we recognize the value of U.S. visitors here by providing them with that added value,” said Murphy. “Recommended exchange rates don’t take into account … the long term context for the resort as a whole, and we’ve had great leadership by members of our commercial sector in providing added value.”

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