Whistler helps keep B.C. tourism on the map 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE / TOURISM WHISTLER - Whistler mountain at dusk with the village in the foreground.
  • Photo by Mike Crane / Tourism Whistler
  • Whistler mountain at dusk with the village in the foreground.

As Whistler gets ready to welcome local and provincial political leaders, their staff and families to the annual convention of B.C. municipalities it should be clear to all that the resort is a powerhouse in producing tourism dollars.

This is not some idle boast, or self-aggrandizement by the town or its residents — it is a simple statement of fact.

And, as we know, tourism is a vital part of B.C.'s economy — generating $13.5 billion annually and employing more than 127,000 people. It is one of the key sectors in the government's BC Jobs Plan. As well as generating revenue for British Columbian businesses and creating employment, the tourism industry contributed approximately $1.13 billion in revenue to the provincial treasury in 2011.

For its part Whistler contributes $428 million in tax revenue per year — yes that is $1.17 million per day — to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and the federal and provincial governments.

It is responsible for 22.5 per cent of the entire annual tourism-export revenue of B.C.

A key part of this success is the support that comes from the provincial government in the form of targeted dollars for resort communities in B.C. — there are 14 identified by the government in all, with Whistler getting the lion's share of the grant money given to grow tourism, about $7 million in Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding.

On the face of it, there appears to be little doubt that putting money into tourism this way is a smart investment. But even as the summer numbers are calculated, likely showing a record number of visitors to not just Whistler but other resorts as well, the provincial government is considering the fate of the program and its level of investment.

Should Whistler get the same level of investment? Should others get more, or less?

As with all these things it comes down to return on investment. There has been a 12-per-cent growth in Whistler since RMI funding began and documented growth in the other 13 communities, which received $10.5 million in funding from the province this year.

As you will read in Pique's feature this week, the RMOW's latest research shows that annual hotel revenues in Whistler have increased by $20 million annually since the RMI funding began in 2006, bringing its total annual hotel revenues to the $200 million mark.

That $20 million lift, in turn, has generated an additional $80 million in commercial sector spending on an annual basis.

Powerful numbers. But consider this — Revelstoke's hotel revenue has grown by 36 per cent since the program started.

So the elephant in the room is left asking, "should RMI funds be focused on smaller resorts than Whistler where the returns can be greater?"

The answer is a resounding no.

The RMI funding strategy was born out of a Whistler idea — growing out of the planning done to host the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. That doesn't mean that we deserve it just because the genesis of the idea is a Whistler-based one — but it is a reflection of the reality that in the competitive world of tourism every resort needs to be constantly creative to survive.

And Whistler has proven that it can take the funding and leverage it powerfully. There is no sign that the resort is sitting back on its laurels — more and more events are being solicited while others are being considered for growth.

The five-year provincial tourism strategy is designed to increase visitor volume, revenue, and employment. The target is to achieve sector revenue of $18 billion by 2016 (five per cent growth per year).

Is it an achievable target? Only time will tell. Let's not forget that Canada has fallen precipitously in the tourism destination rankings — from second in the '70s to 18th last year. The ranking puts us behind Saudi Arabia even, and the number of international travellers to Canada has dropped 20 per cent since 2000. 

But people are travelling now in a way we haven't seen in the last five years with the World Tourism Organization predicting 4.5 per cent growth this year.

So now is not the time to cut back on funding to support tourism, nor is it a time to meddle with a funding formula that is working not just for Whistler, not just for the other 13 RMI resort communities, but for all of B.C.


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