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Opportunity in China

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To return to the pre-recession days of three years ago, when Whistler hotel room rates were in three digits and sometimes four, rather than two, the destination travel market has to rebound. The four-star hotels, the fine dining restaurants and others that provide service at the high end of the scale know how important the destination traveler is to their business, and to the Whistler economy. The regional market is a great foundation for business but people that come for a day or two or three just don't spend like those who stay for a week or more.

The U.S. has always been and probably always will be Whistler's largest foreign market. California, Chicago, New York and a few other large metropolitan regions with direct flights to Vancouver have been important markets. But the recession has taken its toll. California in particular is facing massive budget problems that could be felt by every resident of the state for years to come.

Other foreign destination markets don't look any more promising, at least in the short term. Britain and Germany face their own economic problems and it's been a decade and a half since Japan was a significant market for Whistler.

Of course these aren't revelations; they're facts that everyone in the tourism business around the world is facing. And they lead many to cast their gaze longingly at one of the few countries where the economy is still booming and there are more than one billion potential customers.

China has been on many people's minds for years. The Canadian tourism industry started laying the groundwork for Chinese tourism - approved destination status - years ago. But it took Prime Minister Stephen Harper several years to warm up to China. It was only two weeks ago, at the opening of the G8/G20 summit, that the approved destination status agreement was finally signed.

Tourism Whistler, working with the Canadian Tourism Commission and its office in China, has also done a lot of groundwork over the last few years in anticipation of ADS. But even though the provincial government predicts ADS will increase Chinese tourist visits to B.C. by 10 per cent (8,000 people) this year, Chinese visitors aren't going to drive hotel room rates back to 2007 levels this winter.

More than one billion people looks like a great market, and it may prove to be, but it will take some time to build relationships in China.

Justin Downes has been working at it for three years. A former Playground employee, he left Whistler in 1998. He arrived in China as part of the Intrawest crew exploring mountain resort development. When Intrawest decided to get out of China he went to work for Melco, the company that took over Intrawest's resort developments. He's had his own company, Axis, in Beijing for the last year and a half.

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