The rich and famous, as well as the merely rich, often arrive on a $125 helicopter flight from Vancouver, just
90 km and 30 minutes to the south. After they touch down in Whistler, B.C., Canada’s busiest ski resort, they usually hit the booming town’s shops and boutiques just as hard as they hit its
renowned ski slopes. Actress Priscilla Presley stopped into Jim McConkey’s Sport Shop at the bottom of the slopes one day last January and bought two ski jackets for $660 each. Local merchants say that Elvis Presley’s former wife was far from being one of the biggest spenders.
Adds Jennifer Hope, sales assistant for Monod Sports, another exclusive shop: “Whistler attracts people who have the money to spend, and who don’t really think too much about spending it.”
Shop owners are not the only entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on Whistler’s soaring popularity among wealthy skiers. Last week, Investment Canada approved Tokyo-based Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.’s purchase—for a reported $70 million—of an 80-percent interest in the lavish new Château Whistler Resort from Canadian Pacific Hotels Ltd. of Toronto. Other local developers plan to spend more than $200 million this year building even more hotels, condominiums and commercial space. But Whistler’s hectic expansion has been costly for its 3,500 permanent residents. Building lots that sold for $100,000 two
years ago now cost $200,000 or more. As well, hundreds of low-paid clerks and maids say that they cannot find affordable housing.
The physical attractions of the once-sleepy village nestled deep in a valley between Mount Blackcomb and Mount Whistler are undeniable. And last week, during the spring break for students in British Columbia and Alberta, the Whistler Express, a 10-passenger gondola, whisked 2,800 skiers 4,000 feet up the mountain each hour. Meanwhile, Blackcomb’s 7th Heaven run boasts the greatest vertical drop on the continent—one mile at its summit. There are also daunting glaciers and bowls such as the Saudan Couloir at Blackcomb, named for the French daredevil skier Sylvain Saudan. Last week, some of the 150 skiers who have entered the fourth annual Saudan Couloir Extreme Race from April 13 to 16 were practising on the tortuous run. In skiing’s rating system, a black diamond indicates runs recom-
mended for expert skiers; Couloir boasts a double-black-diamond rating, and the race’s slogan is “2,500 feet of thigh-burning hell.” And the pressure on Whistler’s already overstrained accommodations is likely to increase, as more and more affluent downhill enthusiasts from around the world discover the resort. Last year, of the 1.2 million skiers visiting Whistler—compared with 1.07 million in 1988—only 50 per cent were Canadian, the rest coming from the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. The visitors now rate Whistler as one of the best resorts in the world in terms of challenge, terrain, lifts, location, ski school and customer service. And last October, New York City-based Ski magazine ranked Whistler a close second in North America to long-established Vail, Colo., and better than Deer Valley in Utah and Snowmass in Colorado. Indeed, Whistler has become so well-known that U.S. television productions, such as a recent episode of the Fox Network’s detective drama Booker, have used it as an undisguised backdrop—a playground for the idle rich.
Developers are racing to catch up with the deluge of visitors. CP Hotels opened its 343room, 36-suite Château Whistler, where room rates range from $165 to $800 a night, just last December, after spending a reported $50 million to build it. Other developers plan to com-
plete five commercial buildings and three new midsize hotels, with 150 to 200 rooms each, by 1992 on what is now a parking lot near the château. Also on the drawing boards is an $80-million tennis resort, backed by Georgia Park Realty of Vancouver and former tennis star Bjorn Borg, which will include 16 indoor and outdoor courts, an approximately 350-room hotel and 125 condominium apartments. As well, beautiful condos dot the hillsides near the town, and residents often sit in the hot tubs outside their units watching the sun set.
So far, however, Whistler hotels and resorts have been unable to provide enough accommodation for the influx of service workers who swell the town’s population to 4,500 in the winter season, which generally runs from December to May. As a result, local officials have tied all new hotel development permits to the building of affordable housing. The developers will be required to contribute to employee housing equivalent to the number of employees generated by their project. CP provided employee housing at the Château for 200 people.
But most skiers who arrive at Whistler seem willing to pay the going rate. Condominium units associated with the Delta Mountain Inn cost $90,000 for an 800-square-foot studio, and $279,000 for a one-bedroom unit. Top-ofthe-line, time-sharing units at nearby Village Gate House Turret, all of which have a 300degree view, two bedrooms, two fireplaces, a private steam room and a hot tub on a glassedin deck off the master bedroom, cost $35,000 to rent for one week. Clearly, the spending spree at Whistler has yet to peak.
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