The rest of the world is coming to B.C. to ski and board, when are we going to recognize this?
By Bob Barnett
To look back at all the economic panaceas B.C. sought in the 1990s — from casinos to video lottery terminals, photo radar and building fast ferries — the record is pretty dismal. But through the smoke and mirrors of these failed plans one area of the economy that has continued to shine is the ski industry, drawing skiers, boarders and foreign dollars to B.C.
The question for the future is whether the province continues to follow this economic beacon or gambles on some other panacea.
The 1990s were not a decade of great prosperity in B.C. The problems in the forest industry, commercial fishing and mining have been well documented. And as the resource sector’s problems grew, provincial governments did little to encourage investment in B.C., at least until the last couple of years.
But while the traditional industries struggled, tourism took off. Aided by a Canadian currency which grew weaker against most other major currencies during the decade, tourism and tourism infrastructure grew through most of the ’90s. Some figures: in 1987 Vancouver International Airport served 8 million passengers, but by 1998 it served 15 million; 260 cruise ships left from Vancouver in 1998, compared to just 50 in 1981; 1996 was an 18 year high for hotel occupancy in downtown Vancouver, and occupancy levels in 1998 were still 71 per cent.
Within the tourism umbrella, the ski industry in British Columbia has also grown steadily. Whistler’s continual success since the mid-80s and its North American record 2.1 million skier visits last winter are well known. But Whistler is only the most visible of the B.C. ski areas. Sun Peaks also had a record number of skier visits last winter, ski areas in the Okanagan did well and Panorama’s skier visits have increased in each of the last three winters.
Across the province, the total number of skier visits to the B.C./Yukon region increased a whopping 25 per cent last winter — from 4.46 million skier visits in 1997-98 to a record 5.58 million in 1998-99, according to figures from the Canadian Ski Council.
Snow undoubtedly played an important part in last winter’s success, as most of the province received above normal amounts while most of the rest of North America had below average snowfalls. But B.C. has been increasing its share of skiers for many years. Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Employment and Investment show B.C. ski areas have expanded their share of the regional (Pacific North West) skier market from 22 per cent in 1978 to 42 per cent in 1996-97.