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Whistler hotels shelter stranded travellers

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Long-term effects on tourism not known

There’s no denying that the tragedies that struck in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, leaving thousands dead and thousands more injured at the hands of terrorists, had far reaching economic, social and political consequences.

Even the resort town of Whistler, in its own small way, is part of the story.

The Coast Whistler Hotel, Fairmont Chateau Whistler and the Listel Whistler Hotel (Best Western) put up some 300 travellers, mostly Asians, who found themselves stranded in Vancouver Tuesday when flights were diverted out of U.S. air space in Canada.

The travellers were on two Ana Nippon Airways flights, one bound for Los Angeles and the other bound for San Francisco. Whistler’s Endeavour Tours, which has affiliations with JTB and Canadian Koko tour companies, and the airline took care of the arrangements locally.

"All of them want to leave as soon as they can get out of here," Lisa Matsumoto, a spokesperson for Endeavour, said Wednesday.

"They’re actually taking it very well, they understand the situation, and there haven’t been that many complaints. Everybody’s tired, and a lot of people have commitments they have to meet, some weddings, some business meetings."

According to Matsumoto, Endeavour had about two hours notice to make the arrangements. The hotels, according to Coast Whistler Hotel general manager Stacy Manning, had even less time.

"It was incredibly short notice. We got a call from an Asian tour company and the next thing we know the buses are on the way," she said. "Basically it was all very last minute."

The check-in was particularly chaotic, with only a few guests who spoke English. Front desks had to get the guests’ names into the computer in order to redirect any incoming calls.

After all that, Manning still isn’t sure how many people are staying in the Coast Whistler Hotel.

"We originally had 85 rooms on hold, and only 70 rooms ended up being used. That could mean up to 140 people."

Without luggage, many of the tourists went shopping.

"They all came in wearing the same Salomon T-shirt – I guess there must have been a sale," said Manning.

The switchboard was jammed as guests called friends, families and employers to update them on the situation.

Wednesday morning was a waiting game, with travellers updated periodically on the status of their flights. They were taken on a six-hour round trip to Vancouver Airport to pick up their luggage and were told to expect to stay in Whistler for at least another night.

As for the guests, they’ve been mostly positive, considering all they had been through. They were initially delayed in Japan by a typhoon, then held up over the Pacific while air traffic controllers decided what to do with them. When they finally landed in Vancouver, they were generally dismayed that they were being bused another two hours to Whistler.

"I feel sorry for these people," says Manning. "They’re in a place they’re not supposed to be, and receiving information from one poor tour escort who is receiving their information third or fourth hand."

David Roberts, general manager of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, said he had about six hours notice to make arrangements to set aside 107 rooms for between 208 and 214 people.

"They’re not having a wonderful time, obviously. They had to go to the city to pick up their luggage, they couldn’t send it to them, so instead of a relaxing day or a little vacation from their ordeal, they’ve been sitting on a bus," he said Wednesday. The switchboards were jammed on the first night, but have quieted down considerably.

As for the rest of the hotel, with international and national travel backed up by a day and a half, Roberts is expecting a quiet weekend. There have already been a few cancellations.

"That’s just the short term. As for the long term, we’ll have to see."

Michael Duggan, general manager of the Pan Pacific Lodge and the chair of Tourism B.C.’s Board of Directors, has also been busy.

"Speaking for Tourism B.C., we were very involved yesterday (Sept. 11) in finding rooms for the many people who were stranded as a result of this tragedy. Our workers are still diligently at it," said Duggan.

Although travel slowed significantly during the Gulf War crisis a decade ago, and most recently as a result of Millennium Y2K fears, Tourism B.C. hasn’t given any thought to the long term impact of this week’s terrorist activities on travel and tourism.

"We haven’t really focused on that," Duggan said. "Our mandate, our focus is to help people who are displaced. There will be some long term effects, and we’ll have to deal with that down the road."

The Pan Pacific has had a few cancellations as a result of the tragedy, said Duggan, and some of the Americans who are currently staying in the hotel are stranded indefinitely.

"Right now we have to take care of our American who are trying to find out if their friends and relatives in New York are okay. The degrees of separation are really close, in that everybody knows someone who might have been affected by this tragedy."

Tourism Whistler hasn’t had any cancellations, but they will be watching the long term situation closely.

"We’ve had no cancellation at this point, although it’s too early to see what the effects ultimately will be, here and in North America," said Barrett Fisher, vice president of marketing strategy and business development. "We will continue to watch this until an outcome or a resolution.

"It’s still new, and the first wave for us is to show our concern for friends, family, and business contacts."

Whistler RCMP was flying its flags at half-mast, and as of Wednesday afternoon had fielded approximately 20 calls from Americans who were looking for information on flights and borders, said Constable Ray Bernoties. Many of those calls were referred to the Victim Services unit.

"It’s still ongoing down there. The only step we’ve taken right now it to lower our flag," Bernoties said. The RCMP will likely make some kind of memorial contribution to recognize the police officers who died in the line of duty.

"There is a family feeling among police officers, so we’ll be watching that as the story develops."

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