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Tourism struggling to work with restructured airline industry

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Sept. 11 changed the landscape, but airlines have been in decline for some time

Whistler has weathered the turbulence in the airline industry this season but 2002 will still be a bumpy ride for tourist spots everywhere.

Recent events, particularly in the Canadian airline industry, have highlighted the close relationship between air travel and the tourism industry.

Both are intimately interconnected and changes in one are felt within the other.

"The airline industry is the lifeline to tourism," said Barrett Fisher, vice-president of marketing strategy and business development for Tourism Whistler.

"We absolutely rely on it because that's how our customers get here. It's very important that we work hand in glove (with the industry)."

The importance of this symbiotic relationship with destination resorts was highlighted about seven years ago in Aspen.

During the 1994/95 ski season, Continental Airlines decided it would no longer fly into Denver, the closest international airport to Aspen. With that decision, the resort immediately lost 35 per cent of its airline seats in one fell swoop.

"It was the best snow year in years throughout Colorado and our skier days dropped seven per cent," said Bill Tomcich, president of StayAspenSnowmass.

Tomcich's scenario, which he recalled during a workshop at last week's Mountain Travel Symposium, represents how closely a healthy air industry and a healthy resort economy are tied together.

During most of the ’90s, the airline industry was enjoying a fairly prosperous time. Air travel increased rapidly and profit levels were at a record high.

But even before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the industry was in a decline. Then 9/11 dealt a heavy blow.

Total tourism expenditures in Canada have dropped 6.3 per cent since 2000, according to a recent Statistics Canada report.

Airlines are currently losing between $6 million and $9 million every day and experts believe there won't be a positive turnaround for at least the next 14 months.

There is a perception among tour operators that passengers don't seem as interested or eager to fly, especially longer flights.

During the final four months of 2001, passenger traffic at Vancouver International Airport was down 15 per cent.

All major carriers everywhere have been cutting back significantly both in frequency of flights and number of planes in the air.

So where does that leave a resort destination spot like Whistler?

If this year's numbers are anything to go by, it would appear as though Whistler is weathering the storm of the airline slump quite well.

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