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Wishing for a crystal ball

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Whistler has seen some quite staggering statistics over the last 12 to 18 months when it comes to visitation and success in the resort.

This week, we learned that Tourism Whistler is predicting that this winter ski season will be the busiest on record. Bookings in November were up a staggering 24 per cent over 2015 while December was up 11 per cent. In just one market, Mexico, growth was at 33 per cent — most likely due to the lifting of a visa requirement.

In 2016, we also saw the release of the updated Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) Report.

This showed that Whistler now has a Gross Domestic Product of $1.53 billion per year, representing annual growth of 5.6 per cent since the previous EPI report in 2012.

Whistler generates $500 million every year ($1.37 million every day) in tax revenue for federal, provincial and municipal coffers, and the resort is responsible for about 25 per cent of the entire annual tourism export revenue of B.C., up from 21.5 per cent in 2012.

The report also found that the average destination visitor spends $265 per day in Whistler, while the average regional visitor spends $125 per day, and that there are 15,051 people employed in the resort — up 10 per cent from 2012 — and an average of 2.7 million unique visitors every year (a growth rate of 2.2 per cent every year).

"These are astounding growth numbers," chief administrative officer Mike Furey said last year in a meeting with Pique.

While there is no doubt that this ski season's incredible snowfall has played a part in the resort's busyness this year so far, the numbers are also proof that the Resort Municipality Initiative (RMI) funding is a good investment for the provincial government.

And that RMI funding is at the heart of the Festivals, Events and Animation (FE&A) programming — the events budget of which was released this week.

Said Furey in 2016: "The RMI funds have been instrumental in contributing to the growth that this document (The EPI report) is showing over the last number of years.

"It's sort of hard to put a number on it, given the variety of factors like the Canadian dollar and other things, but I think I would definitely attribute a lot of the growth in the summer to the (Festivals, Events and Animation) program."

This week, we learned that two new additions would be made to the roster for FE&A spending — a youth festival (funded at $20,000) and a speaker at the Audain Art Museum ($17,000). No details were available at press time about the speaker or what the new festival is about.

In 2016, 15 events split roughly $844,500. This year there are 16 events with a total projected spend of $737,600 (15 applied for funding).

Most of the funding is very close to the 2016 amounts. Ironman, which gets $250,000 for example, is in its last year of a five-year commitment — discussions are underway about whether the event will stay in and around Whistler. An economic impact assessment (EIA) paid for by the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and done by Ottawa-based Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance in 2013 said the event draws around 2,400 participants and close to 10,000 spectators, generates $7 million of spending in Whistler, which supports $8.4 million of local economic activity.

So, on the surface it looks like a good one to keep.

Tough Mudder got a couple of thousand dollars more this year — a nod to the fact that it is bringing into the resort a great type of visitor.

As the stakeholders gathered this year to discuss FE&A spending those in the bars and clubs sector commented that the demographics of the Whistler visitor are changing and that's not great news for them — but Tough Mudder guests are popular.

Tourism Whistler also commented that corridor-wide collaboration should be explored as well.

As we look at what events got funding this year, it's hard not to contemplate what the situation could look like in 2018 after the provincial government finishes its investigation of the RMI program. Right now, it looks like a proven winner so it's hard to imagine the province will cut it.

But perhaps it will look to other partners, like the federal government, to come on board with some funding — after all the feds benefit in taxes but fund little at the local level in reality.

Hovering just above this uncertainty is the larger question of how much more we can grow. We need more workers, more housing, fewer cars on the road and it is costing more to deal with all of this success. Are we reaching a tipping point for the FE&A program? Does it need a re-vamp? Do we need to consider this as we consider how the funding model might change?

And like a spectre overshadowing all of this is the great uncertainty of what a Trump U.S. presidency will do to tourism?

If there were ever a time to wish we had a crystal ball, this would be it.

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