Whistler embracing cultural tourism in bid to widen its appeal

September 2, 2011

Heads down, thighs pumping, cyclists are a common sight on the Sea-To-Sky Highway these days, some of them no doubt prepping for the RBC GranFondo Whistler.

The one-day race – set for Sept. 10 on the scenic, winding route between Vancouver and Whistler– debuted just last year but has already become a hit, with 7,000 people signed up to ride and thousands more expected to take in post-race revelry in Whistler.

The event's popularity has come as a relief to founders and supporters, including government agencies that oversee road closings for the race.

The rising number of cyclists on the highway also speak to behind-the-scenes strategies in Whistler, where politicians, community leaders and volunteers are involved in a long-term effort to make the community as well-known for festivals and cultural events – sports-oriented or not – as for powder and gondolas.

That goal, shaped and given a test run through Whistler's experience as a host city for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, meant the door was open when GranFondo co-founder Neil McKinnon came knocking in 2007 to pitch a concept that, at that point, was largely unknown outside of Europe.

"I have to say, of all our partners, Whistler got it immediately," said Mr. McKinnon, whose Toit Events runs the Whistler race and also organized a June GranFondo in Kelowna. "They [Whistler]figured this out and said, 'This is a fantastic concept,' and they supported us fully, as they do today."

The warm reception was no fluke. For at least a decade, the Resort Municipality of Whistler has been trying to broaden its appeal, driven by market research that indicates the resort's occupancy levels have fallen below a "sustainable" 60-per-cent occupancy level for much of the past decade and that cultural tourism – trips planned around festivals, museums, restaurants or historical sites – is one of the fastest-growing sections of the global travel industry. Arts, culture and heritage is the first of sixteen strategies in Whistler 2020, a long-term community plan.

The GranFondo is a cycling event, but it also involves spouses, friends and spectators spending time – and money – in Whistler. And that fits with planners' goals to use everything from jugglers to free concerts to boost traffic and, it's hoped, repeat visits to the resort.

"Culture doesn't necessarily mean ballet or opera," said John Rae, Whistler's manager of strategic alliances. "Whistler may not stage an opera – but we could have a criterium [a short cycling race]and a concert that follows it."

Arts and culture, including that of the region's native bands, were key elements of Olympic planning and of longer-term strategies now being put into place. The resort has tapped provincial and federal funds to push its cultural agenda, which includes Whistler Olympic Plaza.

Home to medal ceremonies during the games, the plaza – which had its grand opening this month – now features a lawn, playground and outdoor entertainment space with a capacity of 5,000.

This weekend, the plaza will get its first run as a ticketed venue for some shows of Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler – the inaugural version of what founder Arnold Schwisberg conceives of as an annual affair.

If it takes hold, the jazz festival would join other regular events, including the fall food festival Cornucopia and the Whistler Film Festival, on an expanding cultural calendar.

A lawyer and jazz promoter, Mr. Schwisberg hit a regulatory snag this month, when B.C.'s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch nixed a proposal that would have allowed adult ticket-holders at Olympic Plaza shows to have a drink in their seats, rather than in the confines of a beer garden the regulator was prepared to approve.

As a result of the regulatory standoff, this year's event is to be alcohol-free, although Mr. Schwisberg hopes conditions will change next year. The public spat over liquor policies for the jazz festival has some calling for a review of regulations around special events, saying current laws have failed to keep up with the kind of programming Whistler is now trying to attract.

For Mr. Rae, that effort is akin to "fattening the bulls-eye" – beefing up the cultural offerings of Whistler by capitalizing on what makes the place unique.

That's the approach taken at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, a three-year-old, $32-million museum that features activities that include cedar hat workshops and ethnobotany walks through the forest.

Located slightly off the beaten track and a few minutes walk from Whistler's Olympic Plaza, the cultural centre was a hit during the Winter Games, when about 10,000 visitors came through the doors.

The museum also has a focus on aboriginal youth, 300 of whom have gone through a youth ambassador program since the facility opened.

Some of those young people might end up like Carl Wallace, a Lil'wat band member who just completed his three-month promotional period and is now sales and events co-ordinator at the museum.

Mr. Wallace, who spends his days explaining what the museum means to others, was asked what the museum means to him

It's important, he responded. "It's a huge thing – that the Squamish and Lil'wat presence in Whistler is being presented to the world."

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