Skiing significant part of provincial economy In the early 1970s Al Raine went to Victoria to pitch his proposal for developing Powder Mountain, the area south-west of Whistler in the Callaghan Valley. The plan would have seen millions of dollars invested in B.C. and created hundreds of jobs. But government officials didn’t see it that way. He was told skiing was a sport for the elite and he should take his proposal elsewhere. Raine now concedes that Powder Mountain was not the best area to develop for alpine skiing and is thankful his proposal was turned down. But the attitude toward skiing was shocking. "I gave the minister a little speech about tourism as a clean industry and an economic generator," he recalls. Today, led by the phenomenal success of Whistler, B.C. ski areas are significant contributors to the provincial economy. According to statistics compiled by George McKay, provincial co-ordinator of ski development, alpine skiers visiting B.C.’s top 20 ski areas in the 1993-94 winter spent an estimated $500 million. Ski-related travel and retail sales and employment in nearby communities is not included in that figure. Gross revenues for all B.C. ski areas, from resort business directly involved in skiing, were more than $183 million and the gross fixed assets of the top 20 resorts (excluding real estate) were estimated at $345 million. McKay is in the process of compiling statistics for last winter, but new investment at the top 20 resorts (excluding real estate) was expected to exceed $63 million, including major new lift systems at Whistler Mountain, Blackcomb, Mount Washington and Sun Peaks. There aren’t nearly as many lifts being installed this season, but Don Murray of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners says a lot of resorts are doing a lot of planning. "Whether the equipment goes in depends on the market and other factors, but there’s a lot of planning going on," he says. The planning is in response to anticipated continued growth. Last winter was a phenomenal snow year for most areas of the province. Total skier visits in B.C. have increased steadily, from slightly more than 3 million in 1989-90 to an estimated 5 million last winter, although the final figures aren’t in yet. Raine points out that skier visits in Colorado during the same period have been nearly stagnant. The exchange rate continues to make vacations in Canada a bargain for Americans and the Open Skies policy on air travel has suddenly made Vancouver much more accessible for skiers in New York, Texas, Minneapolis, Chicago and Denver. Although Whistler and Blackcomb are still the marquee ski areas, the whole province of B.C. is starting to become a ski destination, much like Colorado. "It’s definitely spreading into the rest of the province," Murray says. "Whistler and Blackcomb are the high end of the market, but there’s now a niche for others — Silver Star, Big White and so on. They’re high quality resorts, but a slightly lower market niche." Making the whole province a destination for skiers is something Raine has advocated for years, and was part of the motivation behind his move to Sun Peaks Resort last year. Murray says skiers are now coming to B.C. and looking for a variety of resorts. "It’s just like golf courses. People may go to Palm Springs to play the PGA course, but they’re going to play other courses, too. If there are a whole slew of golf courses people stay longer and play different courses. The more facilities you have the better it is." Moreover, skiers are an attractive group of people for anyone interested in target marketing. The Canadian Ski Council says the average annual income of active alpine skiers is $56,000, and the average age of the Canadian skier is 28. Of American skiers, 28 per cent earn more than $75,000 U.S. The province has also been planning for growth in the ski industry. Earlier this year legislation allowing for mountain resort municipalities was passed. The special municipal designation, similar to what Whistler was given in 1975, allows for the creation of a resort association for marketing purposes and gives municipal councils the legal right to make land-use decisions they feel are in the best interest of the resort. That doesn’t mean it’s all clear sailing for B.C.’s ski industry; a couple of poor snow years, a downturn in the economy and prolonged land disputes can all take any profit out of what is still primarily a four- or five-month/year business. However, the ski industry in B.C. has come a long way from the days when it was rejected out of hand because it was an elitist sport.