An odd thing happened to one of local realtor Max Thornhill's Hong Kong-based clients in Whistler this summer.
"One of my clients said they were at a party, and there were seven kids from their childhood school (in Hong Kong) at this barbecue in Whistler," Max relayed.
Historically a popular second-home destination for Hong-Kong buyers, Whistler has continued to see strong interest from the island territory. While they didn't have specific stats for 2018, Max and Maggi Thornhill—formerly of Thornhill Realty until their purchase of an Engel & Völkers franchise earlier this year—estimated that around half of the interest in Whistler's luxury market originated from Hong Kong this summer. "It's definitely Hong Kong that is changing the face of the luxury market," said Maggi.
According to statistics from Re/Max Sea to Sky, Hong Kong accounted for nearly $19 million in home sales last year, making it Whistler's second largest international group of buyers after the United States. In 2016, Hong Kong-based buyers made up just over $32 million in sales, eclipsing the territory's previous high of $26.8 million in Whistler's Olympic year. (Like with all Whistler real-estate sales figures, however, the market's small sample size should be taken into account.)
Pat Kelly, president of Whistler Real Estate Co., agreed that Hong Kong is a strong market in Whistler, but acknowledged that that trend has existed for a long time.
"There is a strong Hong Kong influence here, but I would fine-tune that by saying there always has been," he said. "There's been a little bit more (sales activity) this year than last, and it does tend to be a little bit more visible above the $3 million (price range)."
There are also some key differences between the average Hong-Kong buyer and those from other international markets, Kelly said.
"My experience and the experience of the agents has been that those people often have a historical relationship with B.C., or with Whistler or Vancouver. They tend to be ex-pats, like Canadians living in Hong Kong or British living in Hong Kong," he noted. "They're not that speculator market that people get all wound up about. They are people who come for six weeks in the summer, they're here for Christmas, they're here for Chinese New Year, and in some cases, the wage earner may commute, (and) the family stays here."
There are several factors helping to drive interest. One is the astronomically priced real estate in Hong Kong, the fourth most densely populated region in the world, where new parcels are sold via government land auction to the highest bidder. Another is Whistler's easy accessibility compared to other ski resorts.
"We are just one flight for most people to get to us," said Maggi. "It's a huge difference when comparing us to somewhere like Aspen or Vail. They typically have two flights, one to Denver and then (another)."
As Hong Kong continues to drive strong sales, Whistler's longstanding affordable housing shortage shows no obvious signs of slowing down. "That's not affecting the lower end of the market," Maggi said of the continued interest in Whistler's luxury market. "Those buyers come here and spend a lot of money. They're stimulating all of our businesses but they're not impacting employee housing."
Max reiterated that a confluence of factors can affect a housing market, and Whistler is no exception.
"This is an economy that has played an incredible role for a long time, and the municipality, for as much foresight as they had in creating (the Whistler Housing Authority), they fell behind a little bit," he said.
"What's the problem when you fall behind? Capital. That's why (the municipality) has gone and done what they've done by putting this ability out to private developers to create staff housing now.
"I think they've made all the right moves. When you pick a great place to live, this is one of the risks and rewards of it."