Whistler-Blackcomb breaks two million visits again 

Rising dollar expected to create challenge as resort prepares for the rest of the year

By Clare Ogilvie

The numbers are still being crunched but it looks like last ski season put Whistler-Blackcomb over the two million skier visit mark once again.

But despite the fact that Whistler-Blackcomb’s parent company, Intrawest, is now privately held by Fortress Investment Group LLC, senior officials will not be more precise with skier visit numbers than that.

“As a public company we didn’t (release skier numbers) and we are just going to continue on with that,” said Dave Brownlie, Whistler-Blackcomb’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“We are over two million again and it has been a great winter, but at this point we are not prepared to disclose the exact number.”

According to preliminary statistics gathered by the Canada West Ski Areas Association, B.C. had 5.1 million skier visits this past winter and western ski resorts are reporting about 7.6 million.

However, said Jimmie Spencer, the chief executive officer of the CWSAA, data is still coming in and he expects B.C. to creep up to over six million and Canada West numbers to go over nine million.

Heli-skiing and cat skiing are at a record breaking level of 84,500 to date, with more operators still to report in.

“It’s definitely one of the better years,” said Spencer, pointing to great and consistent snow, strong marketing, and a spin-off effect from poor conditions in parts of Eastern Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Those same conditions helped Whistler-Blackcomb enjoy a great year too, said Brownlie.

“We are very happy with this year,” he said.

“Both the mountain and the resort community, we all worked together with Tourism Whistler and the properties to really drive the demand and be more aggressive out in the marketplace, and of course Mother Nature gave us a big helping hand.

“The last two to three years have been pretty challenging and created a lot of negativism, angst, and pointing fingers. But a lot of people in the community really worked hard and together, and with (strong) business this season it was fun. People were energized and I am confident that we can carry that forward.”

While there is no direct link to more visits thanks to the coming 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, Brownlie says Whistler is in the media more now.

“…And that is positive for sure,” he said.

But ski resorts cannot afford to sit back and relax, said Brownlie, pointing to a flat U.S. economy, the rising Canadian dollar and the changes coming with the Western Hemishphere Travel Initiative, part of the United States’ push to secure its border.

“Obviously the dramatic rise over the last couple of months (of the dollar) is a concern for sure,” he said.

“…(As) it goes up it is more of a challenge getting our American visitors here.

“The good year that we have certainly drives momentum going into next year, but those three things within the U.S., which is our biggest international guest visitor, that is going to pose some challenges.

“So we certainly can’t rest on what we accomplished this last year. We are going to have to be more creative and more aggressive in the marketplace to get people here.”

The Canadian dollar was at a 30-year high against the U.S. dollar this week, trading at more than 94 cents U.S. Five and a half years ago a Canadian dollar was worth 62.7 cents U.S.

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