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Challenging times for tourism



There has been no shortage of challenges facing British Columbia’s major industries in recent years. Tariffs, confrontations with environmentalists, consumer boycotts and changing markets have hit the forest industry hard. Investor confidence, or lack of confidence following Bre-X, combined again with changing markets and regulations has made mining almost invisible. Fishing is faced with one simple but fundamental problem: a dwindling number of fish.

While they haven’t had an easy time of it in recent years, at least these traditional B.C. industries understand the challenges they’re facing. On the other hand, people in the tourism industry – and that includes everyone in Whistler as well as many in Pemberton and Squamish – look back on the last three years and wonder what could possibly come next.

From the abrupt nose dive the economy took in 2001, to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the near collapse of the airline industry, SARS, mad cow disease, wild fires, floods, avian flu and now record high gasoline prices, the challenges have begun to take on biblical overtones. Faith has been tested. You could hardly blame some for subscribing to the old adage: it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

To be sure, the problems of the last three years haven’t affected the tourism industry alone. In some cases they’ve hit other industries even harder than they’ve hit tourism. But the combination has been like chasing gophers in a backyard: you take care of one and another pops up somewhere else.

Take Whistler as an example. In the aftermath of 9/11, when several airlines went out of business and people’s enthusiasm for getting on airplanes was lower than Robert Milton’s reputation, Whistler wisely decided to focus on regional markets rather than destination visitors. The regional market means more people arriving by automobile. But in the post 9/11 world driving across the Canada-U.S. border has become a… more time-consuming process, to put it nicely. So Whistler, and many others in the tourism industry, pushed to improve the efficiency of border crossings, with some success.

The regional market has responded and Whistler, all things considered, hasn’t done too badly the last couple of years.

But summer business is even more dependent on rubber tire traffic than winter business and now, just as the summer season is about to begin, drivers are faced with record high gasoline prices. One company, ResortQuest, has begun offering pre-paid cards for gasoline to people who stay at their properties this summer.

With the upgrades to Highway 99 that began last year and will continue for the next five years, driving to Whistler requires some planning. One alternative to driving, for some, is expected to be a privately-operated passenger rail service. It will still happen, but legal issues, in Whistler and in Victoria, have delayed a final decision.

Meanwhile, Intrawest has teamed up with WestJet and Alaska Airlines to float a proposal for regular air service to the Pemberton Airport. From planes to trains (and cruise ship passengers) to automobiles and back to planes. No effort is being spared to try and get people to Whistler.

But of course every other tourist destination in B.C. and in North America is also making its best effort to attract visitors.

While the challenges for tourism are many, and will continue for the foreseeable future, Whistler, and British Columbia, hold one huge advantage over other regions: the 2010 Winter Olympics. Some may already be tired of the hype and circumstance surrounding the Olympics, but nearly six years prior to the event tangible benefits are already emerging.

Last month, at a forum on the Olympics in Whistler, Visa announced its plans to market the Games, Whistler and Vancouver, beginning this summer in Canada. This week, at a Vancouver Board of Trade meeting, Visa Canada President Derek Fry reiterated that promise. Visa will be promoting Vancouver and Whistler to the holders of its one billion cards as well as promoting the 2010 venues in marketing material. Vancouver and Whistler already appear on Visa Canada’s Web site; in the future they will appear on all Visa Web sites.

The issues facing tourism in the first decade of the 21 st century continue to evolve and challenge tourism-dependent regions. Solutions won’t be easy, but fundamental to any tourism plan is awareness. The 2010 Olympics and the partnership with Visa give this region a huge leg up in overcoming these challenges.

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