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Foreign bookings up but they can’t buy at some B.C. ski resorts

Operators gain confidence as international bookings recover: U.S. traffic has doubled and Asia Pacific entries are up 194 per cent
The new 10-bedroom Wedge Mountain Lodge and Spa is now open at Whistler and corporate bookings are already strong for the luxury retreat. | Daniel Holdsworth

The return of international visitors to British Columbia is good news for ski hill operators, but a ban on foreign buyers has shelved expansion plans at some Interior resorts.

“The operators are reporting strong early-bird [bookings],” said Christopher Nicolson, CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association following two weeks of meetings with operators across the region. “The U.S. market has come in strong. We definitely saw that last year and that seems to be continuing right now.”

Nicolson said a key damper on expansion is the federal government’s two-year moratorium on foreign buyers, which has nixed new residential construction at Apex, Silver Star and Sun Peaks resorts in the Thompson Okanagan.

However, hopes are high new federal housing minister Sean Fraser will exempt the resorts, according them the same status as others in B.C., such as Whistler.

The province’s tourism dashboard is packed with promising indicators that support optimism this ski season, however.

Visitor entries in the first half of 2023 were double last year for both U.S. and international arrivals. The strongest growth was seen in Asia Pacific traffic, which was up 193 per cent. The activity helped drive hotel occupancies to their highest level in four years, according to Smith Travel Research (STR), with Vancouver leading the country at 86.4 per cent in August. Whistler occupancies stood at 75.7 per cent while Vancouver Island properties saw occupancies rise into the 80 per cent range and Kootenay Rockies hotels reported occupancy rates in the 70s.

Moreover, average daily room rates increased 13.4 per cent province-wide in the eight months through August, according to data provided by Smith Travel Research (STR), driven by strong increases in the Lower Mainland. The provincial average rate is now $240 a night, with Whistler topping the charts at $426 a night.

Whistler also saw strong growth in conference traffic last winter. With both leisure and business travel establishing a new baseline, operators are making fresh plans.

They include Keltie and Daniel Holdsworth, who recently opened the 10-bedroom Wedge Mountain Lodge and Spa. Designed to accommodate large groups in a comfortable, intimate venue, Wedge Mountain builds on their experience with the Alta Lake Chalet and Nighthawk Lane vacation rentals.

The Holdsworths began planning Wedge Mountain in 2019, prior to the pandemic, but the focus evolved with guest behaviour.

“We decided to change into a more luxury version of what we were planning, really focused on making our space work for big corporate groups, corporate retreats,” she said.

Demand has come from across North America, with about half the bookings to date being corporate groups.

Norm Langlois, general manager of Coast Hillcrest Hotel in Revelstoke, also saw a resurgence in corporate bookings this fall, and into the winter season.

“We’re pacing really good,” he said. “It looks like the numbers are going to hit last year.”

The region’s inland location promises to insulate it from the effects of El Niño, which typically hits the coast harder than it does the Interior. Most of the guests he’s spoken with are optimistic about the coming ski season.

“We do a lot of bookings with heli-ski clients, and those bookings are right on track,” he said. “It’s a good mix between Europe and U.S.”