Opinion » Editorial


Tourism stands up better than lots of other industries



Earlier this week Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin took on the tourism industry for needing too much government help. McMartin wrote: "… the tourist industry is an industry like any other, and thus, I can only assume, as committed to free-market capitalism as any other. Yet it, more than any other, seems to beg for, and get, the greasing of government dollars these days."

I don’t know if he meant committed to free-market capitalism the way the airline industry is, the way the farming industry is, or if he was just making a joke, but tourism is an easy target because nobody respects the fundamental currency of the industry, the tourist. The very mention of the word brings to mind the fat guy in the ugly Hawaiian shirt and shorts, the prissy woman who hasn’t a clue how to get out of the bindings on her $1,000 skis. Tourists are people on vacation, enjoying leisure time, not working and therefore not doing anything important. They are scorned, perhaps behind their backs rather than to their faces, but even in a tourist town like Whistler they are too often just tolerated rather than respected.

And they are us, even though most of us, when we go on vacation, don’t think of ourselves as typical "tourists".

Tourism also defines us in Whistler. Plummer, liftee, business owner, real estate agent, back hoe operator – it’s not likely we would be doing any of those jobs it if it wasn’t for tourism and tourists.

Defining tourism is part of the problem too. The forest industry has no problem extrapolating its importance to the economy. If the forest industry suffers it affects the log trucking industry, the construction industry, the secondary manufacturing industry, and the impacts can be seen immediately in small forestry-dependent towns across the province.

Tourism has the same sort of ripple effect in the economy. Who knows how many hundreds of millions of dollars – of private sector money – have gone into tourism-related construction in recent years across B.C. That sort of investment wouldn’t happen without a healthy tourism industry, yet for accounting purposes it is considered part of the construction industry.

McMartin complains about tourism begging for, and receiving, government handouts. He cites three prime examples: the 2010 Winter Olympics, the proposed RAV line and Vancouver’s new trade and convention centre.

Whistler, presumably, would be another good example. In the early 1960s, when Whistler Mountain was being developed, WAC Bennett and Phil Gaglardi promised to pave the road from Squamish to Whistler to help the fledgling ski area. In the 1970s and ’80s the federal and provincial governments came through with grants to help establish the infrastructure for the Whistler Village. And when Whistler was on the verge of bankruptcy during the recession of the early ’80s the province assumed the municipality’s assets and debts.

But those debts were all repaid, with interest, when the province sold off the land for Village North. Whistler now provides Victoria with more than $1 million a day in revenues. And it will continue to do so for years to come. Would those initial government funds now be considered handouts? They look like a better investment than pumping money into an obsolete pulp mill to keep it afloat.

McMartin calls the Olympics "…the biggest gift to tourism ever in this province. The overwhelming beneficiary will be the Vancouver tourism industry."

That’s true. In fact it was the tourism industry that first pushed the idea of bidding for the Olympics.

But that’s not the whole story. If it is the whole story, then we’ve failed. Nothing is going to be handed to anyone on a platter, but as the recent visit by a delegation from Torino, Italy has shown, the Olympics can be a catalyst for much more than tourism, and for more than just Vancouver and Whistler.

McMartin concludes: "As a firm believer in free-market capitalism, and one inordinately proud of B.C., I have but one question: When is this industry going to stand on its own two feet?"

The budget for Tourism B.C., a Crown corporation (there is no ministry for tourism in B.C.) comes from a percentage of the hotel tax collected in B.C. If the tourism business is good there’s more revenue; if it drops there’s less revenue.

In other words, the tourism industry is standing on its own now.