For one week in July I was held hostage. On board a cruise ship. En route to Alaska. The only thing a proud tourism industry worker could do to salvage her dignity at suddenly experiencing travel on the other side of the fence, was to turn it into a reconnaissance exercise.
My mission: Discover what Whistler can learn from cruising. After all, it's the fastest growing segment of the worldwide travel industry, in an era when many other travel businesses, including Whistler, have seen slumping numbers. Statistically, 11.2 million people took cruises in 2005, with almost 1 million of them setting sail from Vancouver, the primary port of the Alaska cruise industry.
Sixty per cent of those passengers book-end their cruise with a day trip or an overnighter in the Greater Vancouver area. That’s 600,000 travellers firmly in Whistler’s sights – 600,000 passengers who have already dealt with Customs, who already have passports, who are looking for something to do. In 2003, only 1 per cent of cruise ship passengers stayed overnight in Whistler. With the Whistler Mountaineer reinvigorating passenger rail to Whistler and offering pre and post-cruise packages, that’s almost 600,000 new travellers to lure into the mountains. For a glimpse. For what might possibly be the highlight of the entire trip. For a sampler that might very well bring them back for more.
Said Rocky Mountaineer Vacation’s Ian Robertson: "We have significant evidence to tell us that when people take a Rocky Mountaineer train tour and stay in Kamloops, that they do return. The Kamloops Tourist Information Centre staff are feeding back to us that they have significant numbers of people visiting them who came through the area on the Rocky Mountaineer five or six years ago, and wanted to come back. We don’t have the data yet on the Whistler Mountaineer, but I can only believe that the same thing will happen here. Whistler is very well-positioned to take advantage of the cruise market."
Part way through its first year, the Whistler Mountaineer has blown the expectations of both passengers and the company. The 2006 targets of 36,000 passengers were met by mid-July, with three months remaining in the six month operating season. "We added another coach because the demand was so high," said Robertson. With capacity expanded to 240 passengers daily in each direction, and many trips sold out, that’s a lot of new eyes on Whistler.
Robertson also advised that 65 per cent of guests on board the train said the trip exceeded their expectations, with an additional 30 per cent satisfied that their expectations had been met.
Tourism Whistler’s Manager of Community and Media Relations, Breton Murphy, acknowledged, "Whistler Mountaineer has been a key contributor to the significant growth in tour and travel bookings this summer."