Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Whistler was already considering how best to balance its rising visitation numbers with the well-being of a community ready to burst at the seams. That has only been accelerated by a global health crisis that has forced destinations the world over to hit pause and rethink the future of travel.
As the former CEO of Destination Canada and a partner at Vancouver-based tourism consultancy firm Twenty31, it’s Greg Klassen’s job to try and navigate the murky future of destination travel—and that includes ski tourism.
With more than 25 years experience and a diverse portfolio of clients ranging from Discover Halifax to Tourism Jordan, Klassen was invited to speak virtually on April 26 as part of the Canada West Ski Areas Association’s spring conference, where he spoke to both the challenges and opportunities facing the ski industry in a post-COVID world.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pique: What do you think ski tourism will look like coming out of the pandemic?
Klassen: The tourism landscape will be different and of course destination skiers will look differently through the tourism lens, but I don’t think skiing is going to change significantly. It’s already aligned with trends in the future. We’ve seen trends in terms of rural tourism, wellness tourism, in terms of getting fit and getting fresh air, support for things like mental health and exercise. There’s something called slow tourism, which basically means rather than flying out to Cancun for a three-day getaway, we’ll be taking more time and being a lot more thoughtful about tourism.
Nobody wants to go back to 2019. In 2019, the globe set a record for the number of visitors. Almost no country that I work with, even some of the more challenged countries I work with—I’m working with Egypt right now, I’m working with Jordan and South Africa—none of them want to go back to 2019 numbers. They’re all more aware of the social, cultural and environmental consciousness that this pause has given us to think and rethink about how travel is going to work. That will extend to the ski industry and it will mean people will be more aware of where they are and the land they’re treading on. I think destinations themselves and the tourism industry will have to rise to that occasion because consumers will be demanding it.
Pique: You’ve touched on some of the opportunities. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing ski tourism post-COVID?
GK: The challenge for tourism in general, and I think ski tourism is the same, is confidence. Tourism has lost its mojo. There’s a perception out there that if you’re carrying a suitcase, you’re carrying COVID-19.
Less than one quarter of Canadians are confident enough to actually get on a plane and stay in a hotel right now, even prior to the recent wave. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in the tourism industry to instil [confidence] when it’s safe to travel again. We need lots of help from government to tell that story and we need lots of help from the tourism industry to tell everyone they can come out of their basements now. We don’t know when that’s going to happen because government continues to say that travel will open up again when it’s safe to do so or when the time is right, but they’re not defining that for our tourism industry. We don’t know what our goalposts are. We don’t know what ‘when the time is right’ means—so let us know. We can take it.
Pique: Cost is often cited as a major barrier to entry for new prospective skiers and snowboarders. Do you think the industry needs to look at affordability if it wants skiing to be sustainable long-term?
GK: A hundred per cent, I agree with that. The cost is quite crazy … but then that also goes against the trend of slow travel because conscious travel is going to cost more. If you want lower volumes, then you’re going to have to charge higher prices to support infrastructure and the development. Those are probably two trends that are at a point of tension. Fewer visitors means more and higher costs. Maybe there are pricing models [that could work]. There are ways of using price as a lever that can encourage more visitation without affecting the overall quality of the experience.