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Slowdown hits Whistler ahead of Olympics

WHISTLER, British Columbia ” Despite being a year from hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada’s Whistler ski resort is experiencing the same drop in business that has hurt ski resorts elsewhere.

Part of it is the lack of snow so far, but officials and businesses in Whistler are also pointing to the global economic downturn. Most cities experience a boom ahead of the Olympics, but Whistler is showing it isn’t immune to the global recession.

Spending is down by about 10 percent for the season compared to last year, Tourism Whistler’s Casey Vanden Heuvel said. He added that the resort had prepared for a slowdown.



“It’s fairly predictable that in tight economic times discretionary spending is a form of spending people cut,” he said. “In terms of impact, we see that our average length of stay has been reduced.”

Vanden Heuvel also said overnight stays and conference bookings have declined.



Intrawest, the company that owns the ski resort, announced job cuts in November. It also owns several Colorado resorts and others in North America. It said the drop in business at its resorts is unlike anything it has experienced in recent years. The company refinanced a loan of more than $1 billion with its parent company in October, just hours before a deadline that could have seen Intrawest’s assets sold off.

Last Friday, the streets of the picturesque town 90 miles north of Vancouver were not packed. The Salomon Sports ski shop was almost empty and down the street at the Peak Performance ski clothing shop, staff were standing around with little to do.

“What I hear in Whistler is that business is quite low compared to other years,” clerk Melanie Von Stetten said.



Jim Douglas, manager of the tony Pan Pacific Whistler hotel, concurs that business is off by about 10 percent.

“A big core concentration of our business is U.S. business,” he said.

But Douglas said the lack of snow this season has more to do with the slowdown.

However, the local real estate market has also cooled with prices falling eight percent. Real estate agent Steve Legge blames the global slowdown for the decline, but said Whistler’s decline isn’t as precipitous as those in other markets.

“We’re good by comparison,” Legge said.

Conde Nast Traveller magazine picked Whistler as the best ski town in North America earlier this month, but the resort received negative attention last week when a gondola tower collapsed. Fifty-three people were trapped in unheated gondola cabins for several hours, and 12 were injured when their cabins hit the ground. The Excalibur Gondola has yet to fully reopen.

Last week’s collapse happened just days after officials unveiled Whistler’s new Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the longest and highest lift of its kind in the world. Officials hope it will entice new visitors. It was built by Doppelmayr Seilbahnen GmbH of Austria, which also built the Excalibur.

The gondola collapse raised concerns about the lifts for the 2010 Games, months after a massive rock slide closed the only direct highway connecting Whistler and Vancouver for five days last summer.

The winding, slow and sometimes dangerous Sea to Sky Highway has undergone a nearly $500 million upgrade to ensure it can handle all the traffic expected between Vancouver and Whistler during the Olympics. The planned upgrade of the highway was a major factor in the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the Games to Vancouver and Whistler.

Officials say the road, venues, athletes’ village and snowmaking equipment will be ready for the Olympics.


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