China threw the beleaguered Canadian tourism industry a bone last week by finally granting Canada "Approved Destination Status" - something that has been in the works for a decade, but was only confirmed this year as Canada hosted the 2010 Winter Games.
Chinese president Hu Jintao signed a memorandum of understanding on June 24 that made it official.
The new status, which is already in effect for Australia, New Zealand the U.S. and many other countries, will allow travellers from China to openly visit Canada and for Canadian travel agencies to advertise within China.
Air Canada has already announced plans to double flights between Canada and China following the signing. Visitation numbers from China are expected to increase in the double digits.
B.C., which is likely to be the biggest beneficiary because of its proximity and Chinese population, is forecasting visitor numbers to increase by 10 per cent in 2010, 15 per cent in 2011 and an additional 15 per cent for 2012. In 2009, 160,833 Chinese visitors came to Canada with over half visiting B.C.
There is no word as to what the value may be to the tourism industry, although it's been noted that Chinese tourists will spend over $60 billion this year travelling abroad. Capturing even 10 per cent of that traffic would be a huge windfall for tourism operators already struggling with the decline of U.S. visitors.
U.S. visitation is down roughly 53 per cent across Canada since 2001, when U.S. visitors represented 80 per cent of all overnight visitors. B.C. has not been affected as severely as the national average, but visitation has continued to decline every year since the high of 2001.
Tourism associations across B.C. and Canada have already laid the groundwork with Chinese tour companies and travel agents and are hitting the ground running in what promises to be a competitive race for those dollars. Just as B.C. and Whistler will be advertising in China, so will Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
Tourism Whistler has been working on China for over five years, since the last attempt to get Approved Destination Status failed. Tourism Whistler has partnered with the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism B.C. and Tourism Vancouver.
"We've hosted a lot of familiarization tours where we bring qualified tour operators and travel agents to Canada and we bring them to Whistler so they can experience our product here and will be knowledgeable in selling it and putting together packages," said Kim Hood, leisure sales manager for Tourism Whistler.
As well, Tourism Whistler will participate in at least three additional "fam" tours this year and has made arrangements to attend a tradeshow in China in October to sell the resort.
Tourism Whistler has also laid the groundwork for tourism by hosting Chinese broadcasters during the Games and having a presence at the Canadian Tourism Commission office in Beijing.
"They have established relationships that, out of any market we've worked in, are absolutely critical in developing successful business partnerships," said Hood.
Tour operators are the main focus, although Tourism Whistler hasn't ruled out direct marketing either, possibly in partnership with Vancouver.
In terms of drawing visitors, Hood says Vancouver is crucial.
"Coming to Vancouver is a major selling point, but we've been able to tap into the business coming into Vancouver to get visitors up to Whistler for a day or two to experience what we have to offer here," she said.
They have also conducted research on the market itself, and based on results most of the marketing focus will be on summer. Whistler's summer months also will likely be a bigger draw than winter.
"It's our understanding that there is interest in skiing and our exposure during the Games highlighted that fact, but there's no accurate research on what the ski potential is," Hood explained.
"Summer is initially where the biggest opportunity is, and attractions like the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. Last summer Whistler Blackcomb saw an increase in sightseeing ticket sales from companies in Vancouver that handle the Asian market."
And while many visitors will be focused on shopping and visiting family, Whistler should be an easy sell.
"What they want to experience here is something they can't get at home, which is fresh air, being out in nature and experience the beauty of places like Whistler," said Hood.