Opinion » Editorial

Loonie loss, our gain


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You could be forgiven for wondering if Whistler was part of the U.S. last weekend as we hosted a very busy Martin Luther King Day long weekend.

Eateries, parking lots, accommodations, the slopes — all decked out with our American friends (though some need tips about how to dress for a ski resort!).

This has always been a busy weekend for Whistler when it comes to hosting U.S. travellers, but there is little doubt that the plunging loonie has made the resort a very popular destination this winter.

It's been over 13 years since the Canadian dollar was this low, with last Wed., Jan.20, marking the 14th consecutive day the loonie had fallen against its U.S. counterpart.

Bloomberg said that's the longest losing streak since the Canadian dollar's peg to the U.S. dollar ended in 1970.

The Canadian dollar was also down against the euro, the British pound and the Japanese yen.

Analysts tell us that this trend is not going to reverse any time soon. So what can Whistler do to capitalize on what is good news for tourism, and how can residents survive the busyness and also the rising costs of living associated with it? And how do we staff for this even as the resort continues to struggle with labour woes?

As challenging as some of these issues are, let's keep it in perspective. It would be far worse for everyone if our problem were an empty resort as opposed to a full one.

The Conference Board of Canada said overnight travel from the U.S. increased about seven per cent last year and is expected to rise another 3.3 per cent this year.

According to information from the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSSA), which represents 134 ski areas and 157 ski industry suppliers, resorts are enjoying some of the best revenue in years. Some ski destinations have seen a 200-per-cent increase in U.S. business alone.

Last year, Canada returned to international visitation levels seen before the financial crisis in 2008.

That's an important gain, Rob Taylor, vice-president of public affairs at the Tourism Industry Association of Canada told Macleans magazine this month, because, plainly put, foreign tourists are worth more.

"If you're coming from outside the country," he told the magazine, "you're likely to stay longer and spend more."

According to the most recent data (Whistler's Economic Partnership Initiative report from 2013 — time for an updated report?), destination winter visitors spend an average of $350 a day, while regional visitors spend $135 a day. So an increase in U.S. and other long-haul visitors coming here is definitely a boon.

But the significant number of people coming from Washington state for shorter trips is also an important part of the equation for Whistler.

It is likely this trend will continue into the summer months as well. No doubt the Resort Municipality of Whistler and its partners are busy working on the festival calendar, and with the dollar staying low against the U.S. currency, Whistler will also likely attract Canadian travellers as well.

With this in mind it is even more imperative that discussions at the federal level continue apace when it comes to taking steps around the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, or other such programs that could help address the labour shortages we face.

David Lynn, outgoing president and CEO of the CWSSAA, told Pique last week that a survey being conducted on labour by the organization has found that every ski resort is short at least eight lower skilled workers and three highly skilled workers. There is little doubt that most businesses in operation in Whistler can show staff shortages of their own.

At a Whistler Chamber lunch meeting last week, Liberal MP Pamela Goldsmith-Jones told the packed room: "Temporary Foreign Workers is an issue that is raised all the time, of course, and I am entirely focused on working on this in Ottawa," adding that, just two days before the luncheon, she spoke with the chief of staff for minister of employment, workforce and labour MaryAnn Mihychuk.

Let's hope there is significant movement on that. After all, following years of ignoring the U.S. tourism market, Ottawa is partnering this year with Canada's tourism industry on a $67.5-million shared-cost marketing campaign in the U.S. aimed at drawing 400,000 more visitors over the next four years.

Brace yourselves.