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Economic impact of rockslide still being totalled

Hotels report 20 to 80 per cent cancellation rate

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The jury is still out on what a recent rockslide cost Whistler, closing the highway for four days and the start of the B.C. Day long weekend, but possibly tens of thousands of visitors were turned away.

According to Tourism Whistler the August long weekend is usually one of the busiest of the summer, with occupancy rates between 70 and 80 per cent. Bookings were down slightly this year, said corporate and member communications manager Breton Murphy, but occupancy was expected to pick up as a result of last minute bookings.

“We are seeing the impacts on U.S. visits with the slowdown in the economy and fuel prices, but in the summertime we tend to rely a lot more on regional traffic and the drive market that makes decisions at the last minute,” he said. “They don’t typically make a booking more than a day or two before the weekend, and given that the closure was several days before the weekend it’s hard to estimate what we would have seen.”

On Friday, Tourism Whistler polled several local hotels and found that the cancellation rate was between 20 and 80 per cent for properties. Some visitors did make the trip after the highway reopened on Saturday evening, but those numbers won’t be available until Tourism Whistler completes its research.

Several hotels offered special rates while the highway was closed, as did the Whistler Golf Course.

James Terry, the chief operating officer of the Rocky Mountaineer, said they were forced to cancel train trips for five days while damaged rails were repaired.

“It was probably about 2,000 guests,” he said. “To be honest it hurts, but these are the curves you can have thrown at you and we had to handle them just like everybody in Whistler had to handle them — I’m sure a lot of people were hurt financially by the highway closure, but most people can probably agree that it could have been worse. We’re just glad nobody was injured in the slide.”

Terry praised the Ministry of Transportation and CN Rail for keeping them up to date on the status of the slide, and for getting the rails open two days earlier than expected.

“Not only was their communication extremely good, they really exceeded expectations in getting the tracks open again,” he said. “They came in with a reasonable estimate as to how long it would take to get everything open, and they beat it. It was a lot of hard work, and we were very happy to be able to start running on Monday instead of Wednesday.”

A section of granite just north of Porteau Cove gave way at roughly 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, just missing a northbound Perimeter bus with one passenger on board. The windows on one side of the bus were broken by falling rock before the main part of the cliff gave way over the highway. Nobody was injured, and Ministry of Transportation engineers initially said it would be five days before the highway would reopen.

Dave Crebo, a spokesperson for the ministry, said the cause of the slide was unknown.

“At this stage nothing has been identified as a trigger, beyond this being just a natural slide occurrence that sometimes happens in British Columbia, or wherever you build a road through the mountains,” he said. “Earthquakes have been dismissed, the one in (Los Angeles) that day was just too far away, the Sea to Sky construction was dismissed because there was no work near that area. It was raining, but there’s nothing obvious that could have been the trigger.”

The cost of the cleanup, which had crews working around the clock, is still being tallied, although one engineer suggested that costs were in the range of $1,000 per hour to remove roughly 16,000 cubic metres of rock — 10,000 of which fell in the initial slide, and another 6,000 that fell when an overhanging slab of granite was blasted away, and crews scaled any remaining loose rock from the cliff wall.

Crebo says there were a number of reasons why the cleanup went faster than expected.

“For all our work crews, having that (Sea to Sky Highway Improvement Project) equipment handy was definitely a big help, but one of the biggest factors was how well the technical engineers managed to remove the remaining overhanging rock, and break some of the large boulders down to size,” he said.

“Another thing that helped was that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans gave us permission to dump the rock into Howe Sound, which we were told we couldn’t do at first and that the alternative was to truck all the rock out.”

Most of the events planned for the weekend took place as scheduled. The Canadian Barbecue Championships took place at Dusty’s in Creekside with a record number of spectators. Only a handful of registered teams missed out on the event.

The Squamish Days Loggers Sports Festival, celebrating its 51 st anniversary, also went on as planned with the majority of competitors either taking the Fraser Canyon-Duffey Lake Road around or finding another route.

As well, the 21 st annual B.C. Corvette Club Car Show rolled into Whistler as planned on Saturday. Many took the alternate route to Whistler, reportedly enjoying the road and the views — the driving time was anywhere from six to nine hours from Vancouver, depending on traffic.

“As soon as I heard the highway was closed, I though perhaps the club members wouldn’t want to drive the extra time to get to Whistler,” said organizer Vic Nighscales. “But I did a couple of surveys of the participants, and the vast majority wanted to be there and keep the event going. Whistler is a special destination for us, and this event is something that’s very special to our members because of Whistler. The enthusiasm just knocked me out of my chair.”

In Whistler, the slide caused temporary shortages on Wednesday evening, as residents snapped up groceries and items like bottled water, and filled up their gas tanks. However the shortages were only temporary, as shipments of food and fuel continued as usual from the northern route as early as Thursday afternoon.

From a public safety perspective, only a handful of people were airlifted from the Whistler Health Care Centre to Vancouver during the closure.

“There were a few flown out (four as of Friday), but they would have been flown out regardless of the slide, so there was no impact at all,” said Anna Marie D’Angelo, public affairs officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. “B.C. Ambulance set up a water taxi if it was needed, and a lot of people were still able to get in and out in various ways so there were no problems.”

Several water taxi services emerged to transport visitors from Squamish to Horsehose Bay, including Squamish Tugs, members of the yacht club, and Whistler-based Canadian Snowmobile Adventures.

Allan Crawford, owner of CSA, started to run a water taxi using a boat they purchased in order to offer sea kayaking tours next summer. They ran their first trip on Wednesday, July 30 with three trips a day scheduled through the weekend.

Within hours of getting their first calls, Crawford had arranged CSA’s first trip, and by Thursday they had a schedule in place for customers. Prices ranged from $80 to $200.

Crebo says there is no way to guarantee against future slides, but that regular geotechnical assessments are made to spot potential problems. Next summer, Crebo says a large-scale assessment and maintenance is planned for the entire length of highway.

“That (geotechnical) work is ongoing and will certainly be stepped up a bit — not strictly for the Olympic Games, but also as a benefit to the people in that corridor,” he said. “There will be more work done next summer that will help, but it’s something we try to maintain all along.”