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Cultural Tourism report finally sees light of day

Steven Thorne's 'place-based cultural tourism' offers few surprises



After eight months in the making, the future of Whistler's cultural tourism plan was made public, only it wasn't as detailed as some may have hoped.

There were few answers presented to council members on Tuesday in regards to what the Cultural Tourism Development Strategy will look like, beyond some increased animation -including a possible collaboration between Cirque du Soleil, a yet-to-be-announced Whistler jazz festival - and a focus on "place-based cultural tourism" - the concept of "place as product."

"[This] is a significant opportunity and is the next big thing for this community," said John Rae, manager of strategic partnerships for the Resort Municipality of Whistler.

"Not a silver bullet, nothing that's going to happen over night, but it's a big opportunity."

The strategy presented is a skeleton to build on. The only funding currently attached to its implementation is money for the Festival Events and Animation Plan (FEAP), which is drawn from the Resort Municipal Initiative funding, formerly known as hotel tax. There was no discussion at the presentation about other sources of funding for initiatives, which may grow out of the strategy.

The idea was first presented to the community by consultant Steven Thorne, who was hired by the RMOW to write a report about how Whistler should move forward. That report, A Tapestry of Place , was made available for the first time last week and was presented to council this week.

Tuesday's presentation - given by Rae; Fiona Famulak, Whistler Chamber of Commerce President; and Ann Popma, community cultural consultant - offered very few answers in regards to what the strategy looks like.

Instead, the presentation offered an hour's worth of details of what the details of the strategy will eventually be. It was in many ways a reiteration of what Thorne had already presented last July, presented to many of the same people who were in attendance at Thorne's first appearance.

Thorne identified many strengths, weaknesses and threats to the success of Whistler as a cultural tourism destination, the former including developing the Whistler Story, and developing Function Junction into Whistler's Soho.

"The point is there is a different experience happening down there," said Famulak.

"We need to harness it, grow it, develop it and market it."

The visual homogeneity in the Village, a cultural landscape that is managed by the local government which doesn't allow for much spontaneous artistic expression, as well as the absence of a community cultural plan were identified as weaknesses. Thorne recommended that Whistler create a cultural community plan.

Famulak said she believed that would eventually address the infrastructural needs and formalize the procedures that are needed to move forward, and it will help stakeholders engage the community at large. It would be essentially a feasibility study for what Whistler can do with what it already has.

Thorne stated in his report that neither the federal or provincial governments have supported a demonstration project for creating a cultural tourism destination, so that Whistler would, in effect, be the first of its kind.

He identified 115 cultural experiences, packaged in six "cultural themes" including Arts, Minds & Mountains (the arts); Our True Nature (natural experiences); Whistler à la Carte (culinary experiences); Valley of Dreams (Whistler's human heritage); A Shared Vision (First Nations' heritage); and Rejuvenate (health and wellness).

"When we look at that tapestry of experiences that are available in Whistler, I go, well okay, maybe we have permission to consider ourselves to be a cultural destination already," Rae said, who added that a wider range of experiences will increase length of stay and capitalize on the sense of place, which is essentially at the heart of all cultural travel.

The primary goal of the strategy is to reach and maintain at least 60 per cent annual occupancy rates in the resort. This has been steadily achieved in the winters, but the remaining seasons pull that number down. The 2009/2010 season saw a yearly average of 52 per cent.

"We need 60 per cent occupancy on an average annual basis to be able to generate the revenue that generates the profitability that the accommodation sector can put back into their facilities," Rae said, noting that it's all the other sectors that feed into the tourism economy that need to rely on that average.

The goal of the strategy is to maintain a steady hum of activity and entertainment 365 days a year in Whistler.

According to Thorne's report, cultural tourism travel in Canada in 2007 equaled $8 billion. The majority of travellers were ages 45-plus, well educated and of high household incomes. The RMOW's Festivals, Events and Animations Plan (FEAP), a key component of the strategy, will focus on this demographic, though not to the exclusion of others travellers.

The report was funded through the $500,000 Cultural Capital's grant given to Whistler in 2009.