Whistler's cultural tourism rising 

The resort anticipates how arts and heritage can enhance the visitor experience as it prepares to be the launchpad for BC Culture Days

click to flip through (5) ILLUSTRATION BY JON PARRIS - The resort anticipates how arts and heritage can enhance the visitor experience as it prepares to be the launchpad for BC Culture days.
  • illustration by jon parris
  • The resort anticipates how arts and heritage can enhance the visitor experience as it prepares to be the launchpad for BC Culture days.

Hundreds of people turned out for the grand opening of the gorgeous Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) in the Upper Village in the fall of 2008, which took place in the museum's totem-lined Great Hall.

There were a dozen chiefs and other representatives from the Indigenous nations that have peopled this region for millennia. Then-premier Gordon Campbell and then-federal heritage minister James Moore, both honoured guests, kept awkward rhythm to the beats of the assembled drummers and singers. Confetti sparkled as it fell from the ceiling.

An Olympics-inspired cultural tourism opportunity was born.

Beyond the spectacle on stage, Squamish and Lil'wat Nation elders, precious holders of cultural history through terrible times, were present to see a stunning building and living museum unveiled as a resource for presenting to the world what they had safeguarded. As time has proven, the value of the SLCC has also been in reviving endangered art forms and teaching the next generation of Squamish and Lil'wat youth.

That day, Whistler was confirmed as something greater than a ski resort.

Today, there are so many different threads making up Whistler's cultural tourism tapestry that it can be difficult to unravel them. The larger cultural stakeholders — such as Tourism Whistler, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the Audain Art Museum (AAM), and Arts Whistler — co-mingle with non-profit organizations and festivals, commercial galleries and other outlets, and touring events such as concerts.

It is only now just being discovered how the interaction between these entities, residents, and millions of visitors to the resort will weave a picture that will dictate the future of arts and culture here along with Whistler's overall success.

A cultural flagship

Fast-forward to early 2016. The AAM is no longer a gleam in founder Michael Audain's eye, but a newly opened iconic building (and cultural opportunity on a international scale) in the resort, housing tens of millions of dollars worth of British Columbian art: from Bill Reid, to Emily Carr, to Group of Seven artists, to unknown First Nations masters.

Asked for her thoughts on the AAM's place in Whistler culture 18 months later, executive director Suzanne Greening says it is still early days — a refrain often heard across the culture and arts firmament here at the moment.

"You look at other successful arts organizations across Canada and they've been operating since the 1920s, or '30s or '50s, but I think we are definitely on the right track," she says.

"We're developing partnerships, we're developing awareness. It's not, 'Oh my God, we've finally arrived.' It's a continuum. It's a continuum of building relationships and relevancy to the community as well — to the schools, to visitors, to residents."

Despite its newness, outside interest in what the AAM represents to Whistler is undeniable. Greening was approached in 2015, months before the museum opened, with a request to host 2017 BC Culture Days (details in the next issue of Pique), this province's contribution to the annual national celebration of arts and culture.

She accepted, but on the proviso that the wider Whistler arts-and-culture community play host to the weekend event, due to take place from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1. Arts Whistler, Whistler Museum, the SLCC and others have joined the AAM in planning the celebration.

"It's a phenomenal program and opportunity to focus on the culture of individual communities across Canada," Greening says. "It really is a national movement."

Around the world and at home

Cultural tourism is most definitely a growth industry.

According to a September report from London-based market research forecasters Technavio, the global cultural tourism market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of almost 36 per cent between 2017 and 2021.

Domestic cultural tourism, which dominates the global tourism market, has a market share of 65.3 per cent.

Along with the usual socio-cultural entities of museums and galleries, this includes Indigenous cultural tourism, and cultural eco-tourism (where the flora, fauna and cultural heritage are primary attractions), with the latter accounting for more than 55 per cent of the market share last year.

In terms of economic activity, Technavio says the international cultural tourism market will be valued at $10.02 trillion by 2021, and describes the struggle for a piece of that pie as "competitive and fragmented."

The new provincial government in Victoria, whether by luck or design, seems to have anticipated these conditions. Tourism, arts and culture have been combined into a single ministry under the guidance of Minister Lisa Beare.

In an email, Beare said she anticipates Whistler will play an important part in developing cultural tourism in British Columbia. She seemed to prove this in a closed-door meeting with Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden on Monday, Sept 18.

As far as the development of cultural tourism goes in high-profile resorts such as Whistler, the Technavio report is tremendous news, and provincial focus can't hurt either.

Between the opening of the SLCC and the AAM came the most significant document on Whistler's cultural journey to date, the final report of the Whistler Community Cultural Plan, published in 2013 with input from 14 community stakeholders, from municipal representatives, artists and arts and heritage organizations.

The aim was to set a framework for future priorities and create a vision for cultural experiences in the resort.

Out of it came four goals: Achieving understanding and appreciation for arts, culture and heritage among the Whistler community; the development of a strong sense of identity, pride and belonging through participation in cultural activities; integrating policies and programs to encourage economic prosperity through the use of cultural and creative experiences; and developing Whistler as a cultural tourism attraction with a worldwide reputation.

To achieve this, the RMOW-led report says Whistler's arts and culture stakeholders needed to prioritize the enhancement of existing culture, cultivate its growth and elevate participation and awareness.

Overall, the report included 50 recommendations on how to effectively implement a cultural tourism strategy for Whistler.

Whistler's arts and culture sector has built some meaningful momentum since the report was published, whether the upward trajectory of Whistler's many home-grown festivals and local grassroots arts hub, The Point Artist-Run Centre; the continued growth of arts programming, thanks in part to the $489,000 Heritage Canada grant Arts Whistler received in 2016, coinciding with a period of change at the organization that saw a major rebranding and new executive director Maureen Douglas at the helm.

The follow-up

Whistler council sat on one side of the table, representatives of the arts community on the other.

The heads of Arts Whistler, the Whistler Museum, and the SLCC joined John Rae, manager of cultural planning and development at the RMOW, for an Arts, Culture & Heritage Update to the Whistler council in the Sept. 5 Committee of the Whole meeting.

In an interview following the meeting, Rae described his role in furthering Whistler's cultural agenda, a job formerly belonging to Whistler's first community cultural officer Anne Popma, who retired in 2016.

"The executive summary of the 2013 Community Cultural Plan is pretty much what I do every day. It is essentially a work plan and we ask how we're doing against it," he says.

"Can we take those 50 (recommendations) and say that we've knocked off a dozen or so? Some can be merged. But there are about 25 recommendations that can still be tackled over the next three to five years, and this is the timeline we are giving ourselves."

Rae's role is to advance as much of the cultural tourism and cultural planning wishlist as possible by forging "an economic development strategy to attract visitors who wish to embrace the full range of experiences in lifestyle, heritage, natural history, built environment, sports and recreation and the arts."

Rae adds: "But the beauty of it is that it is dependent on a vibrant arts, culture and heritage community before the community will identify itself as a destination for purposeful travellers."

The wording is broad, he says, in order to accommodate as many recommendations as they can.

"Generally, we feel we are making very good progress with the goals that were set out," he says.

Arguably the most significant cultural tourism plan put forward by Rae for the next year will be investigating the potential of promoting Whistler's natural history, particularly having the resort region declared a UNESCO Global Geopark. Currently, there are only two in Canada, including at Tumbler Ridge, B.C., in the foothills of the Northern Rockies.

It was a concept explored by both Rae and Pique's resident science columnist Leslie Anthony independently of each other, but almost simultaneously. Now Anthony is providing the RMOW with the benefit of his experience as the idea moves forward.

"That would be an initiative that, in my opinion, would be second to none. It's a major undertaking and we will know by the end of the year whether we will submit an application to UNESCO in 2018," Rae says.

Another initiative is an upcoming Heritage BC workshop that will discuss creating a heritage registry to mark local locations of historical note. The end result will be a report for the RMOW to help it decide if a registry is needed.

As well, a West Side Cultural Connector is being discussed for Alta Lake to link the earlier history of that side of the resort with other sites of interest, such as the River of Golden Dreams, the Alta Lake Station House and Cypress Point. It will be similar to the Cultural Connector that runs from the Upper Village through to Main Street, linking the main arts and heritage venues in Whistler Village.

The Chili Thom game-changer

Over at Arts Whistler, Douglas says the retrospective Chili Thom Experience — which in June took over the AAM's temporary exhibition gallery, the Maury Young Arts Centre (MYAC), the SLCC, Whistler Public Library and the Whistler Museum — showed the level of collaboration between arts and culture groups that can be achieved.

"The anchor draw was the (Thom's) Masterworks at the Audain, and it drew a lot of folks who hadn't been in there before," Douglas says.

"A lot of people would find their way to them all, and then come back to us (at the MYAC) to see his work for sale. It showed how the Cultural Connector allows people to take a much deeper journey."

It was a group effort that could signal a shift in how the resort's cultural stakeholders operate together.

"All of us are working really well together. That whole spirit of collaboration, particularly in the past year, has happened because we've had opportunities to get together and talk about what is happening with each of us," Douglas says.

Douglas, who has overseen Arts Whistler for a little over a year, adds:

"We're going through some interesting times. The next thing is to decide what else we want to take on and do together. There so much consultation and collaboration that it is excellent and exciting," she says.

"For me, it wasn't anything really new other than realizing that we are on a strong trajectory."

Douglas says they will be working with modest means to launch BC Culture Days in the Sea to Sky, but that, again, collaboration will make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

"The level of awareness that has started to flow, because of the (new) marketing tools that we're using collectively, the content we're getting and the growth of it, has been amazing," she says.

"That we've been able to stretch the (Heritage Canada) grant over two years and maintain it, we've seen it reflected in the growth of participation in the arts scene and the quality of what is in there."

All these developments and activities in Whistler require an advocate to inform the world, and in Tourism Whistler cultural tourism has found a champion.

Kirstin Homeniuk, vice president of marketing and Meredith Kunza, senior manager of research and product development, are taking all this activity and sharing it with visitors.

"As a resort we have identified that arts, culture and heritage is growing, both in terms of the products and experiences we offer and in terms of the rising interest in our target audiences," Homeniuk says.

The other bonus, she adds, is that arts and culture is a year-round affair.

"That helps us in the shoulder periods. In the fall, now we know we've got some room nights to fill," she adds.

Cultural tourism has shaped marketing efforts, and this will be the second year that B.C. and Washington State will be targeted with an arts-and-culture message. It is a four-pronged marketing program — with Destination BC, Tourism Squamish and Tourism Pemberton also taking part.

Kunza says Tourism Whistler has been focusing on cultural tourism for the past two years and is in the initial stages of measuring its impact.

She says over half of Whistler's 3-million-plus visitors in both the summer and winter participate in arts and culture activities.

Supporting local creators

Stephen Vogler, executive director of The Point Artist-Run Centre, has a grassroots perspective on the recent rise of cultural tourism: if you support the talent, the visitors will come.

He was involved in many of the meetings and working groups behind the Cultural Tourism Development Strategy and the Community Cultural Plan.

"I was often the lone voice of the artist and I think it is really important to have that in there," he says.

Vogler acknowledges the massive amount of effort put towards developing cultural tourism in recent years, but reiterates that Whistler's artistic growth needs to start from the ground up.

"Looking back five or seven years, I think we've come a long way. Things have developed... and the artist-run centre was established over that time," Vogler says.

"It's important to remember that it's not just facilities and organizations. We need a thriving arts scene. We need working artists on the ground and their creativity.

"In terms of cultural tourism, what people pick up on is whether there is an actual creative community thriving. There is a thriving tourism economy, but there are challenges in terms of housing costs and the things that become difficult."

Vogler said it used to irritate him that artists would move to the resort only to leave when they found a lack of opportunities. Now the situation has been flipped.

He says he wants to see an artist-in-residence program developed for Whistler, along with live-work studio spaces for artists.

"Support for our local creators is really important," he says.

Max wades in

In August, Pique columnist G.D. Maxwell leveled criticism at the shaping of the resort's cultural tourism policy, writing, "They're looking to the business community first for answers.

"We have a cultural tourism strategy. Not surprisingly, it's designed to leverage culture to put heads in beds."

Currently out of province, he elaborates via email: "The main thing missing from this strategy to figure out how to leverage culture is, well, culture. The RMOW, TW and the business community doesn't create culture. In many cases, I'm not sure they even understand what it is.

"Why the first iteration engages the usual suspects and the business community is beyond me. That's like asking the artists in town to come up with the town's financial strategy. Don't get me wrong, RMOW, TW and the business community have a role to play but I'm concerned they're having the first kick at the can before engaging the public."

Maxwell says he believes sport is the main culture in Whistler and feels it is being excluded from the cultural-tourism program. "Whether it's the Peak to Valley race, Crankworx, Ironman, Tough Mudder, sport is culture and it draws people to the resort, not just for the competition but to engage in all the other aspects of the resort, including haute culture like the Audain," he says.

He believes education along the lines of Roads Scholars — a U.S. not-for-profit that provides educational travel tours primarily geared to adults — with programming that could be used to develop week-long courses connected to Whistler's natural beauty.

"Smart people, creative people, will incubate the cultural experiences that successfully become the crux of Whistler's cultural-tourism business. It'll take time and support. We can't impose a sense of urgency on it any more than we can hurry the ski season," he says.

"I think we need more tourists like we need a hole in the head. But I do believe developing a successful cultural tourism sector will take time. We'll learn as much or more from efforts that don't work than we will from things that do work.

"Culture, to be successful, has to be homegrown, grassroots and truly local. You can't graft culture onto a place like some cultivar.

"For example, the VSO coming up to play at Olympic Plaza is not culture, per se. It's artificial and parachuted in. But, and it's an important but, the experience of seeing and hearing the VSO at Olympic Plaza and absorbing what's around that, both before and after, is a cultural experience uniquely Whistler."

Maxwell ends by suggesting that care needs be taken as Whistler's cultural-tourism policy develops: "If people interested in cultural tourism see Whistler as just another place where cheap hucksterism tries to separate people from their cash, they'll stay away."

However cultural tourism ends up being shaped by resort stakeholders, Greening at the AAM holds a strong view of its purpose.

"Culture brings people together and breaks down barriers, and I think that's going to become an ever-increasing role for culture, something that doesn't separate us, but instead shows us that we are very similar, regardless of where we come from."

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