There are signs that B.C.s tourism economy is on the rebound after several years of declining returns.
"Its great to see our tourism industry recovering from the many negative impacts of forest fires, BSE (mad cow disease), Avian Flu, SARS and security fears," said Small Business and Economic Development Minister John Les.
"Despite our many challenges in 2003, our tourism industry has demonstrated remarkable resiliency and is expected to contribute nearly $9.4 billion to the provincial economy in 2004."
The proof is in the statistics. According to B.C. Stats quarterly review of the Tourism Sector, the number of overnight visitors in the first nine months of 2004 was 4.1 million, up 4.8 per cent compared to the previous year.
The best performing region was the Lower Mainland/Southwest area (including Whistler), with 6.2 per cent more visitors in the second quarter. During the same period, numbers declined in the Vancouver Island/Coast, Thompson-Okanagan and Kootenay regions.
The Asian market performed the best in the first three-quarters, with the number of visitors to B.C., 687,206, up 27.9 per cent compared to the previous year. European visitors were up 11.8 per cent to 384,417 visitors.
During the same period the number of American overnight visitors declined just 0.2 per cent to 2,970,191, with an improving economy compensating for factors like a low American dollar.
"We are fortunate the U.S. market has returned so strongly for the month of September, demonstrating that the appeal of British Columbias diverse tourism offerings has not diminished at all for our neigbours to the south," said Les.
Tourism Whistler, which divides the year into halves, summer and winter, said summer business was up 12 per cent compared to 2003. "Keeping in mind that the summer of 2003 was way down, we are seeing a recovery, but were still behind pre-2003 trends," said Michele Comeau Thompson, the Director of Communications for Tourism Whistler.
Tourism Whistler is currently working on campaigns with partners in the resort this winter to create more value for visitors, off-setting Whistlers reputation as an expensive destination, generating more regional business, and compensating for the impact that the shrinking gap between the Canadian dollar and U.S. greenback is having on both sides of the border.
So far those initiatives have been very successful, says Comeau Thompson. "There are a lot of things were trying out this winter season, and some of them have been really successful," she said. "One example is an early booking bonus weve been offering thats worth up to 30 per cent of packages if you book by a certain date. Its been popular and effective, and is just one of the aggressive offers weve been making."
Giving value doesnt just mean lowering prices, she added, but also showing off all the resort has to offer to better attract different market segments such as families and regional visitors. Still, with hotel rooms now available for $119 a room in the early season, Comeau Thompson acknowledges that Whistler has to be extremely competitive.
As for the exchange rate, Tourism Whistler numbers and anecdotal information suggests that Canadians are much more acutely aware of the exchange rate than Americans.
"Theyre not looking at the rate, but at the bottom line, which is where we need to be the most competitive. Dollar for dollar, they care if the package being offered appears to have value, but theyre not aware of the daily fluctuations in the dollar, or how much the dollar has gone up. Thats why we should always be out there with a competitive offer in American dollars, whatever the rate is on any given day," said Comeau Thompson.
"That said its still an important market for us, between 30 and 40 per cent of our overnight business."
Tourism Whistler is more worried about the impact that the higher Canadian dollar could have on Canadian visitors, who might take advantage of the exchange rate to head to the U.S., says Comeau Thompson.
Tourism British Columbia is encouraged by the numbers and projections for a recovery, and is preparing to launch an extensive U.S. campaign promoting the provinces winter resorts.
In September the province announced plans to double Tourism B.C.s funding to $50 million annually. The funding is based on a percentage of the hotel room tax collected. The fact that overnight visitor numbers are up for the first three quarters of 2004 will mean more funding for next year.