Opinion » Editorial


Getting to know the ‘regionals’


Assuming Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb are re-focusing their marketing efforts on the regional markets, as other tourism organizations across North America are doing and as most people in town seem to believe is the correct course of action, we should expect to get to know the "regionals" this winter. It may be a while before the destination visitors return in great numbers.

It’s not just that in the post-Sept. 11 period people are reluctant to fly, or that fears about flying may increase as bombing in Afghanistan continues and the Taliban call for a jihad against the United States. It’s about the airline industry itself. It’s failing, badly. Some major airlines seem certain to go belly up before the industry and the economy recover.

The International Air Transport Agency estimates the number of job losses in the global airline industry since the Sept. 11 attacks at about 200,000. United States-based airlines are cutting the most jobs, with American Airlines and United Airlines each laying off 20,000 employees. Continental has laid off 12,000, U.S. Airways 11,000 and Northwest Airlines 10,000. The only large American carrier expected to make money this year is Southwest.

Air Canada has announced it’s cutting 5,000 jobs, and 20 per cent of its capacity, since the Sept. 11 attacks. That will bring Air Canada’s total job cuts since last December to 12,500.

European airlines expect to cut 20,000 jobs, with British Airways alone laying off 7,000. The Association of European Airlines, in a report to the European Union Commission this week, said that falling demand for air travel "has reached alarming levels and, as of today, European airlines are facing a catastrophic situation that almost compares with the U.S."

Obviously airline capacity is going to be significantly reduced this winter from what it was last winter. Even if people suddenly lose their fear of flying, there just won’t be as many flights into Vancouver as there was last ski season. And the cuts are so severe that it will take time to return to pre-Sept. 11 volumes. Even as the economy and confidence in airlines returns, it may be well into the 2002-03 ski season before flights into Vancouver return to their former levels.

That’s not to say the destination market has or will completely dry up. Skiers and borders from all over the U.S., Britain, Germany, Japan, Mexico and other countries are still coming to Whistler this winter. It’s just not going to be quite as easy to get here.

Access to Whistler has always been seen as an issue among American visitors, other than those living in the Seattle area and California. For years there have been direct flights from Chicago, Dallas and other major cities into Vail, Aspen and Salt Lake City, with its cluster of surrounding ski areas. By comparison, getting to Whistler meant at least one flight, sometimes two, going through Customs, followed by a ride up the Sea to Sky highway.

Things got somewhat easier following the Open Skies agreement in 1995. Direct flights between Vancouver and American cities like New York and Boston were implemented and the frequency of flights on other routes increased as the number of airlines that flew into Vancouver grew.

It’s hard to know exactly how much the Open Skies agreement has helped Whistler, but combined with the major devaluation the Canadian dollar has seen since the early ’90s, relative to the American dollar, it has helped introduce a lot of Americans to Whistler in the past six years.

That’s a point that shouldn’t be lost: a lot of Americans now know about Whistler. They may not be keen on travelling this winter or even next, but many have visited or heard of Whistler. Awareness, of course, is the first step in convincing vacationers to visit.

The airline industry was due for a major "correction" as traditional airlines have gone heavily into debt in recent years while trying to compete with the leaner discount and charter companies. Capacities will return and in the long run Vancouver International Airport will become even more connected to the rest of the world. But in the meantime we should get to know and appreciate the regional market.