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By George Koch Clattering around the divide of the Coast Mountains with a couple of Swiss pals on a whimsical day of heli-skiing five years ago, Al Raine came across what seemed a "magical" place: the perfect ski area, the Nirvana he'd been seeking without success for nearly a decade. It was a 5,000 foot-high hanging valley with ridges topping 8,200 feet. It contained 2,000 acres of skiable slopes facing north, east and south. The snow, as Raine and his mates found out that day, was superb. And it would tend to be that way most of the season, as the valley lay just over on the east side of the Coast Mountain divide. But while Raine had memorized most of the maps of that part of the Coast Mountains, he had no idea this place existed. Hence its almost surreal effect. The mystery was solved when Raine returned home, consulted his maps, and found the mystery valley — split down the middle along the dividing line of two maps. Cayoosh, as it's known, could represent the future of skiing in B.C., a building block towards Raine's lofty goal of exceeding Colorado as the continent's number one ski market. Raine says that Whistler-Blackcomb, with its larger-than- life dimensions and statistics, will always be B.C.'s showcase, the standard by which other resorts are measured. But, he believes, Whistler-Blackcomb can't forever bear the burden — and reap the profits — on its own. "It's absolutely critical that other destinations develop with enough critical mass to be attractive to destination travellers," Raine argues with the fervour of a Jesuit out converting heathens. "I'm worried about the 'satisfaction factor.' Whistler-Blackcomb are great. But after four or five visits, I believe destination travellers will want an alternative." Raine envisions B.C. presenting the world a stable of resorts, all of them offering first-class skiing and services. Raine is convinced that, as Whistler-Blackcomb approaches build-out (and, as the resort now seems destined to reach 80,000 pillows, its currently envisioned "build-out" is nearly twice what many of the resort's founders thought should be the upper limit), maintaining B.C.'s skiing market and building it further will require focusing ski industry expertise on a scattering of smaller, less grandiose, more intimate ski resorts. For the Interior, Raine notes, ski area development could represent a welcome replacement for jobs lost as government policy forces the forest industry to continue consolidating. "The strategy for two decades has been that Whistler would be the first big resort, the one to introduce B.C. to the world. But we always expected there to be a spillover once the resort got more known, more developed and more expensive," agrees Paul Mathews, president of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., which has produced some 350 ski resort plans over its 20-year history. "It's done all three of those things — beyond our wildest expectations." So now it's time, in Mathews' view, for B.C. to move to a "Whistler-Plus" formula — for the spilling over to commence. Mathews notes that Vail put Colorado on the map, and made resorts like Copper Mountain and Keystone viable. In his view, Whistler's done the same for B.C. The province's market has grown from 1.5 million skier-visits in 1978 to 4.2 million last year. (Colorado is at 11 million, the figure Raine wants to top.) What's still unresolved — and hotly contested — is whether smaller B.C. ski areas should now try to compete on the international stage, or whether Whistler-Blackcomb should become an ever-more specialized, true destination resort, while the smaller areas of the Interior concentrate on mopping up the spilled brew from the giant's mug. Risking all on the shiny new model or throwing a rebuilt motor into the old beater is another tough call for resort planners. Even though Cayoosh — just off the Duffey Lake Road between Pemberton and Lillooet — is just an hour's drive past Whistler, it'll be years before the first quad chair grips a high-speed cable and soars the more than 3,000 vertical feet onto Cayoosh's treeless ridges. Cayoosh sits in regulatory limbo. Mathews, in fact, thinks the problems of building new resorts are almost insurmountable. In the meantime, Al and wife Nancy Greene are five months into another major project: giving substance to Raine's claim about the need for smaller alternatives by helping to run Sun Peaks Resort, the rather blandly re-named, re-born, restored incarnation of Tod Mountain at Kamloops. Mathews too sees Sun Peaks, now owned by Nippon Cable Co. Ltd., as B.C.'s "next big one." According to his company's master plan, the nearly 3,000 vertical foot mountain has "95 per cent of the potential of Whistler, and more than Blackcomb." At Sun Peaks, the pieces are falling into place. Two new quad lifts have been installed, grooming improved and a very Whistlerish-looking new day lodge built. Land for a subdivision has been cleared and, when I visited Sun Peaks in early March, half the 50 units had already been sold. The back nine holes of a golf course are going in this summer. Recently built beginner/low intermediate terrain will be extended, along with the area's snowmaking system. And at least two, possibly three lodges, Sun Peaks' first decent on-hill accommodation, will be hurled together this summer. The most credible indicator of confidence in Sun Peaks' destination potential comes from German tour operator Peter Stumböck, a longtime presence in the B.C. and heli-ski markets. Stumböck, who's recently taken to offering Interior tours to select groups interested in seeing something off the beaten track, is building a lodge at Sun Peaks this summer that'll be geared entirely to European destination travellers. But will the smaller resorts of the Interior — with or without quads and cappuccino machines — ever appeal to the monied Euros, with their $1,500 Bogner suits, practised sneers and pretentious, five-star tastes? Excuse me, but isn't that exactly who Whistler was built for? Even for those who seek the honest elements of skiing — terrain, snow and spectacular scenery — the resorts of the Interior must come as a bit of a culture shock, especially after being schooled by brochures, videos and bar-room bull to expect B.C. to consist entirely of the drop-dead terrain found above 8,000 feet in the Cariboos or Monashees. The major resorts in the Alps are, well, alpine, and — surprisingly given Europe's sardine-like population density and the small area covered by the mountain range — vast and spread out. Dozens of resorts over there easily dwarf even Whistler-Blackcomb. The Interior's resorts are small and, in blunt terms — though I dearly love to ski them — nondescript-looking, ancient rounded granite hills surrounded for the most part by highland plateaus checkered with forestry clearcuts. Whistler-Blackcomb is the only resort in B.C. with substantial alpine terrain. Raine — bless his gruff old self — cheerfully acknowledges this dilemma. The key, he says, is building on the Interior's strengths that do appeal to the European set — then topping it all with unparalleled service. "The Interior can still be in the destination business if we do things effectively to give the optimum ski experience," is how Raine puts it. The ageing demographic profile of the active skier also bodes well for smaller, quieter, less intimidating resorts, Raine believes. It's true there's a potent, almost mystical fascination with all things Canadian among Europeans, particularly of the Teutonic cast (the French, as usual, pretend not to care). What the Interior does offer up in spades is the cliché of the rugged frontier, a sense of standing in nearly pristine isolation, with limitless amounts of raw nature spreading in every direction. It's the land of the lumberjack, with a touch of the Old West thrown in. Combining that emotive allure with superb service — excellent airline access, first-rate hotels and Euro-style pension lodges, great food and, in stark contrast to the Alps, friendly service staff and liftees — could make for a potent tourism package, Raine believes. Throw in a Canadian dollar now at par with the German mark and, while marketing the Interior is still a bit harder than saying, "Will that be VISA or Eurocheque, Mein Herr?", it at least presents the possibilities of a realistic tourism strategy. Still, there are those who think the Interior will never be a major international destination, that it should instead concentrate on collecting the spillover from an ever-more elitist Whistler-Blackcomb, while building a secondary North American destination market and, way down the list, presenting a haven for the odd maverick European interested in a quiet getaway. "Let's be honest," says Peter Alder, an Ecosign consultant and former Whistler manager now helping find financing for some Sun Peaks developments. "That's exactly what should happen. The rest — turning the Interior into a major international destination — is illusions of grandeur." As a manager of several Interior resorts in the 1970s, Alder remembers trying to attract Japanese tourists. "They all said, 'These hills are very nice, but we have 100 like them at home.'" Mathews notes that the combination of freeway development into the Interior over the past decade and increasing traffic congestion through Vancouver and on the Sea to Sky Highway means it now takes hardly longer for someone living in the Fraser Valley to access the Okanagan and Sun Peaks instead of Whistler. It's in the suburbs of Surrey where, in Mathews' view, the Interior's future skier-visits lurk. Mathews sees the B.C. market breaking up into specialized fragments as we near the turn of the Millennium. Whistler-Blackcomb will, of course, remain the Mercedes-Benz of the fleet. Currently well-developed, medium-sized resorts like Big White and Silver Star will grow, but likely remain largely regional and family-focused. Several smaller resorts that nature's endowed with a unique local situation could emerge as "boutique" resorts — Apex and Red Mountain, with their tough terrain and rustic atmosphere, come to mind here. "Mountains like Apex provide an antidote to the mind-boggling development of Whistler," says Alder. And half-a-dozen medium-sized but under-developed, capital-poor mountains could grow significantly, including Fernie, Kimberley, Panorama and Mount Washington. Isolation will likely keep the far-northern resorts from doing much of anything, in Mathews' view. But what about all the other Interior resorts, the Reds and Whitewaters, not to mention the Baldys and Whitetooths, all the hills with hardly enough coin to throw some paint on their creaky, rusty 30-year-old garish yellow Mueller double chairs, let alone the big bucks needed for 6 metre per second quads and trendy timber-and-peach-stucco lodges with electric sliding doors? Will they be increasingly marginalized as their rivals get better and better, eventually becoming a mere statistic in a great consolidation of ski areas? Will it be "March or Die" in the hills of the B.C. Interior? The reason this entire paragraph was posed as questions is that nobody knows the answers — or nobody wants to talk about them. Also conspicuously absent from Mathews' vision is construction of new areas. You know, the Powder Mountains, Jumbo Glaciers and others that periodically make a media splash. While the provincial government may be relatively pro-ski area, any proposed new area runs hard up against simple economic realities. "When you're building infrastructure from scratch, it means screwing in the first light bulb costs you $2 million, parking the first car costs you $5 million and flushing the first toilet costs you $10 million," says Mathews. "You're into $40 million to start a new resort, when you can pick up a functioning old one for $5 million." Mathews even has to stretch things to come up with a scenario that sees Cayoosh happening anytime soon. Adding to the uncertainty is the interminable review of the provincial government's Commercial Alpine Ski Policy. The initial policy was founded on the principle that development of ski areas — which now employ 4,500 people directly and pump $500 million into the B.C. economy — is a beneficial use of Crown land. Because they incur huge costs, effort and risk in building ski areas, the policy-makers concluded, developers should be allowed to reap the benefits from the zooming land values that accompany successful resort development. Under the old policy, base area land was made available to resort owners at pre-development assessed values for a 10-year window. The skiing land itself was generally leased on a 50-year basis in exchange for 2 per cent of gross lift revenues, making the arrangement more of a royalty or a tax than a lease. George McKay, co-ordinator of ski development in the B.C. Investment Office, terms the policy a "unique principle." Raine terms it key and crucial to the industry's success in this province. Mathews and Raine, however, have for years watched and grown worried by the fragmentation of responsibilities for land use and development among provincial departments. This has turned the proposal and approval process into an almost Byzantine experience and often led, in Raine's words, to "analysis-paralysis" — witness Cayoosh. "The government's ski area policy is fair," Mathews says. "The problem is in the bureaucracy. They don't know what to do with the ski resort industry. They hate to give approval to even the most basic projects — and that's in an environment in which the premier has said over and over that he likes ski resort development." Says Raine: "The ski industry doesn't want a lot of government money. We just want rules and regulations that are fair and help in navigating through the bureaucracy." What's needed, Raine argues, is a centralized approval process, with a designated lead ministry and officials. Raine would also like to see legislation fostering joint planning and marketing groups at Interior ski areas similar to the Whistler Resort Association. Without central organizations that are well funded enough to aggressively promote Interior resorts throughout North America and into Europe and Japan, Raine believes, resort development will remain as scattergun as the government's approval process. Even more worrisome in recent years was an apparent change of attitude among key bureaucrats. Raine says there's a clique that considers skiing elitist and grew intent on taxing away what they termed the "windfall" profits flowing from base area real estate developments. They proposed selling base area lands at projected post-appreciation prices — even though that growth came about exclusively because of ski area development. A policy of effective expropriation of capital gains, Raine believes, would not only wipe out the possibility of building any new ski area, but pull the plug on most planned expansions of existing ones as well. McKay says the current policy review, now well into its third year, has focused entirely on the issues of Crown land pricing and lease rates. Current scuttlebutt is that ski area promoters have succeeded in convincing the government the current arrangements maximize economic benefits to all sides. We'll know for sure later this spring, when results of the review are announced. Jack Hall, executive director of regional operations for the ministry of environment, lands and parks, who's overseeing the policy review, didn't return Pique's calls.