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Keeping tourism dollars alive

Seeds of concern planted with local governments, as tourism funding for resorts comes under review by province


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If Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden was hoping to show off Whistler in all its resort glory, she couldn't have wished for anything better than the 2014 GranFondo in early September.

The annual road race from Vancouver to Whistler was topped off with an afternoon celebration at Whistler Olympic Plaza — athletes in spandex milling around with their families openly enjoying a well-deserved beer, a packed village with an upbeat vibe, and let's not forget the endless sunshine, shining between the two mountains, standing sentinel over all the fun. In short, Whistler doing what Whistler does best.

Watching in the wings was B.C.'s Minister of State for Tourism and Small Business, Naomi Yamamoto.

She was invited specifically to see provincial Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) money at work — some $10.5 million that gets divvied out to 14 resorts across the province to boost tourism. GranFondo gets a small investment from Whistler's pot as the event continues to churn out millions into the provincial and local economies every September.

"(RMI) allows us to stay at the top of our game," says GranFondo co-founder Neil McKinnon the day after his event. "The funding is critical for us to allow us to maintain a sense of innovation and provide new opportunities that will enhance the event."

In a corner of the VIP tent after the awards ceremony Yamamoto confirmed that the RMI program is on the provincial radar — trade and immigration follows on the heels of tourism, after all, and the province is keen to foster all.

There is, however, a caveat.

"We definitely support RMI funding... but we are actually reviewing right now the return on investment," says Yamamoto.

"Some changes may be coming."

That has Whistler on edge. Uncertainty, the bane of all good budgetary planning, abounds. There is $7 plus million annually at stake. As of right now, Whistler's five-year deal is good until 2016. And then...

Is there is a chance of losing it? Is there a risk the $10.5 million could be redistributed differently among resorts?

Of all the 14 resort municipalities, Whistler stands to lose the most, by far, from changes to the program.

From the first year in 2006 until 2013, more than $50 million collected in Whistler has been funnelled back into the resort.

Safe to say, RMI has changed the face of Whistler.

It has helped build an athletes' village for the 2010 Olympics, which turned into long-term resident housing for employees; it has enticed big name events and big money to town — Ironman, The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Wanderlust; it has made the resort think more critically than ever before about its tourism spend; it has buffered Whistler from global storms.

Above all, the record-breaking room night numbers of late speak for themselves.