News » Whistler

‘Near capacity’ opening weekend for Sea to Sky train

Whistler Mountaineer chugs into town under new name



Under the banner of a new name, the Whistler Mountaineer steamed its way to a near capacity opening weekend as it launched its summer season on May 14.

That "near capacity" weekend could be a sign of good things to come this summer for the re-branded "Rocky Mountaineer Whistler Sea to Sky Climb."

"The weekend was outstanding," said Ian Robertson, executive director, corporate communications and public affairs for Rocky Mountaineer Vacations.

"It's a strong indication that we're starting to see a rebound in the tourism sector.

"I think we're hoping for a slight increase over last year and, given that the tourism economy is still recovering, if we could continue to grow our business on this particular route we'd be very satisfied with that."

Despite last year's overall dip in the tourism sector that saw the industry decline anywhere from 20 to 40 per cent, the Whistler route stayed strong. Its 2009 numbers were on par with its 2008 numbers, whereas the more renowned Rocky Mountaineer numbers declined in the realm of 20 per cent. The Rocky Mountaineer runs between Vancouver and Alberta.

"I think that was an indication of residents vacationing closer to home," said Robertson.

At the same time, guests from 59 countries around the world have travelled the Whistler route.

"I think it supports the fact that Vancouver and Whistler are becoming more and more well-known internationally," added Robertson. "Certainly the Olympics have helped. And we're becoming known as one of those things to do if you're visiting Vancouver and Whistler."

It helped too when the Society of American Travel Writers, the world's largest organization of professional travel journalists and photographers, voted the Whistler Mountaineer as number eight out of the top 10 train rides in the world. The Rocky Mountaineer's two-day journey from Vancouver to Banff or Jasper was rated number one.

But while the summer's projections are strong, Vancouver's suffering cruise ship industry could have an impact on the train routes.

Cruise ship passengers coming through Vancouver are expected to be 30 per cent fewer than last year as competition from Seattle ramps up and a new head tax on cruise passengers in Alaska comes into place, among other things.

That decline in ships docking in Vancouver, from 256 to 179, is expected to translate to a $150 million hit to the local economy.

Robertson could not quantify how that would impact rail travel on its routes.

"From a general tourism perspective I think it's going to have some impact, it's just a question of determining what that impact is going to be," he said.

Cruise ship passengers make up about 40 per cent of the two-day Rocky Mountaineer travellers but he could not say how many cruise passengers travel the Whistler route.

Robertson said this year's name change was designed to take advantage of the renowned Rocky Mountaineer brand.

"There is a huge brand recognition in the name Rocky Mountaineer and quite frankly we wanted to make sure from a marketing perspective we were doing what we could to support the Rocky Mountaineer brand," he said. "To be quite honest it was just much more efficient from a marketing perspective to promote one iconic brand name. So that's why we shifted the name over to 'Rocky Mountaineer Whistler Sea to Sky Climb.'

"It's quite a mouthful but it's getting very strong recognition."