Golden opportunity By Jeri Clausing / February 02, 2010 Share 1 -- Some 250,000 tourists, athletes and media are preparing to descend on Vancouver and the nearby Whistler Blackcomb ski area for the Winter Olympic Games and the parties that go with them. But while the cities prepare for what are expected to be mostly sold-out crowds at hotels, restaurants and related venues, tourism officials have been busy working on plans to combat what they call the "aversion effect," a drop in tourism often seen in host countries before, during and after the Olympics. In other words, the year that British Columbia is at its polished finest might also be the year of great deals for tourists. While hotels are obviously more expensive and mostly booked headed into this year's Winter Games, which begin Feb. 12, skiers have been able to find fantastic deals in advance of the Games in places such as Whistler Blackcomb, North America's largest ski area and the host of the Games' Alpine events. And the deals are expected to continue throughout the year and throughout all of Canada as the country focuses on trying to buck the aversion trend and capitalize on the media exposure it will get when an estimated 3 billion viewers tune in to watch the Games on TV. Stephen Pearce, vice president of leisure travel and digital marketing for Tourism Vancouver, said that in addition to the aversion effect, the tourism industry is coming off a bad 2009, and hotels and tour operators are eager to lure back visitors. "There has probably never been a better time to come to Canada," he said. While most people expect that cities serving as Olympic hosts get a natural boost from all the exposure, the reality is that after an initial spike in visitors it often drops off quickly. Tourism often drops off before the Games, as well, because visitors assume it is too expensive and crowded. A report issued by the European Tour Operators Association just before the Summer Games in Beijing in 2008 showed that tourism in Greece, which hosted the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, was lagging behind fellow Eastern Mediterranean countries Turkey and Croatia. It also revealed that visitors to Australia declined for three years in a row following the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, during which time tourism to New Zealand grew consistently. Canada is hoping to battle that scenario with programs like the Cultural Olympiad, which takes place around the country during and after the Games, said Monica Campbell-Hoppe of the Canadian Tourism Commission. It will also be launching special tour packages throughout the year. "After the Games, some people might think, 'OK, I have seen a lot of Canada so I don't really need to go there,'?" she said. "But on the other hand, I think people will really get a positive impression of the country ... and we hope that they'll be inspired to take an active adventure of their own across Canada to meet the people and sample some of our food and wine." Perhaps hardest hit by the pre-Games aversion is Whistler Blackcomb. While Colorado, Wyoming and Utah have had marginal snow so far this season, Whistler opened with record snowfalls. Still, crowds have been lighter than usual, and rooms for the Games were still available in late January at key hotels like the Four Seasons. "Between now and the Olympics [bookings are] slower than normal, which is typical," said Mark Herron, Four Seasons general manager. "Everyone thinks 'Don't come, because it will be too crowded.'?" Prior to the Olympics, deals as low as $111 for rooms with lift tickets were being offered in Whistler. And more deals are expected to kick in again after the Games, both for those looking for cheap rates and those willing to spend a little extra for an Olympic experience. The Four Seasons, for example, is offering a Ski With an Olympian package starting at about $1,150 per person through the end of the ski season. In addition to three nights' accommodations at the resort, a three-day lift ticket to Whistler Blackcomb and a per-night food and beverage credit, the package features a day of skiing with a current or former Olympian or World Cup champion. Ian Galbraith, a spokesman for Intrawest, which owns and operates the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, said the aversion effect has happened to a lot of host cities, so the ski resort planned for it. Prices for season passes, he said, are the lowest they have been in a decade. "For locals -- Washington state and Vancouver day-trippers -- it's a fantastic year," Galbraith said. "We have also been reaching out to Europe, bringing people in with packages with [lift tickets] for three, four and five days." He said the resort usually gets about 2 million skiers a year, and Intrawest expects that number to be down this year. During the Games, many people stay away, thinking the mountains will be closed to recreational skiers. In reality, though, most of Whistler Mountain and all of Blackcomb Mountain will be open to the public. "Due to the aversion effect, if someone wanted to ski during the Olympics, they are going to have the whole mountain to themselves," said Cindy Burr, a spokeswoman for Tourism British Columbia. And for the first time in Olympic history, Burr said, there will be areas where skiers on certain runs will be able to view the Olympic competition. Let the Games begin Vancouver is the most populous destination to host the Winter Olympics to date, with more than 2.1 million people in the greater metropolitan area. Tourism officials say they hope that being able to showcase the cosmopolitan city will send a message that Canada is more than a cold, snowy wilderness. "The viewers will really see that we have vibrant cities on the edge of really pristine nature," said Campbell-Hoppe, who noted there will also be an emphasis on the country's aboriginal history, including a pavilion devoted to aboriginal cultures. Running concurrent with and following the Games, a Cultural Olympiad will feature more than 600 ticketed and free performances and art exhibitions in 60 locations in metro Vancouver and along the Sea to Sky corridor between Vancouver and Whistler. Events include circus acts, comedians, dancers, musicians, theater performers and visual artists. Cultural Olympiads will also take place in other locations in Canada. Physically, the host cities have been prepared for a while. In Whistler, the Peak to Peak Gondola that connects Whistler and Blackcomb mountains to form North America's largest ski resort has been open for more than a year. It has the longest unsupported span for a gondola of its kind in the world, at 1.9 miles, and the highest lift of its kind above the valley floor, at 1,427 feet. Also, a widened Sea to Sky Highway that runs between Vancouver and Whistler has been open for more than a year. In Whistler Village, several high-end restaurants have opened in the past few years, and there are six sites where Burr said visitors can "rub elbows with athletes." "It's going to be an amazing time," she said. Besides downhill skiing, Whistler is hosting the sliding events -- bobsled, luge and skeleton -- as well as cross-country skiing and biathlon. The rest of the events are in metro Vancouver and at Cypress Mountain, which is located just north of Vancouver. In addition to the various venues and pavilions, the city has worked to improve its rapid-transit system, including opening a train, the Canada Line, that connects Vancouver Airport and downtown Vancouver. The trip takes about 20 minutes. The city also gained some new five-star hotels in anticipation of the Games, including the Shangri-La Vancouver, the first Shangri-La in North America and the tallest tower in Vancouver; the Loden Hotel, a hip boutique property; L'Hermitage, a luxury, apartment-style hotel; the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Vancouver's fourth Fairmont opening this month; the Coast Coal Harbour Hotel, which opened Jan. 15; and the Pinnacle at the Pier in North Vancouver. A number of other hotels have also renovated pre-Games, including the Hyatt, the St. Regis, the Four Seasons and the Westin Bayshore, which will be the International Olympic Committee hotel during the Games. Always a wrinkle And while the venues are ready to go, no Olympics would be complete without a little pre-game uncertainty. Two shadows hanging over these Games are the financial woes of the company that owns and operates the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, Intrawest, and the weather. Creditors last month began foreclosure proceedings against Intrawest and have scheduled an auction of some its holdings, including a partnership interest in Whistler Blackcomb, to be held while the Games are in progress. Intrawest, which is owned by Fortress Investment Group, said in late January that "serious discussions with Intrawest's lenders are ongoing regarding refinancing, and the company continues to operate 'business as usual' at all of its resort properties. "Intrawest is looking forward to the success of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games," the company said. The Vancouver Organizing Committee said it was unlikely that Intrawest's financial problems would disrupt Olympic events. "There's always a chance, but it's a very minuscule chance," Dan Doyle, the committee's executive vice president of construction, told the Vancouver Sun. "You never say never, but I don't think it's probable at all." Doyle said the organizing committee had received legal advice indicating it can still put on the Games in Whistler even if Olympic venues become part of bankruptcy proceedings in the U.S. or Canada. "Whistler Blackcomb [has] always kept us apprised of their financial situation," he said. "We feel very comfortable that we're going to be able to put the Games on with those venues intact." But perhaps the bigger threat of disruption is the weather. Although snow at Whistler is not considered an issue, much of the early-season base at Cypress Mountain, which will host snowboarding events, was destroyed by rain and warm temperatures. Long-term forecasts offer little hope, and temperatures have been too warm to fill the runs with man-made snow. Cypress Mountain closed to the public in late January to help preserve the snow it had, and Olympic organizers have moved to contingency plans, which include trucking in snow and bolstering runs with bales of hay. Otherwise, Pearce said, Vancouver is prepared to host the Games. "The anxiety is ramping up as we get closer," he said. "But everything is ready to go. We are getting our game face on now."Sites offer info on events, transportationAccommodations Accommodations are still available during the Games. The best place to find information on availability is www.2010destinationplanner.com. It includes info on many types of alternative accommodations, from sites for recreational vehicles, bed and breakfasts and hotels to cabins on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Star, which will be docked in Vancouver for the Games. The site is run by the Tourism Consortium partners of Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism British Columbia, Tourism Vancouver, Tourism Whistler and Tourism Richmond. It is also a helpful planning tool for visitors coming for the Olympics. Olympics tickets Individuals may purchase tickets through CoSport at www.cosport.com; however, travel agents cannot submit ticket orders on behalf of clients. Events that don't require ticketsThere are numerous Live Sites in Whistler and Vancouver as well as Celebration Plaza in Whistler that are free to the public, where big-screen TVs will broadcast Olympic events, concerts and other entertainment. There also are country houses, sponsored by participating nations, such as the Holland Heineken House in Richmond. There's also the Aboriginal Pavilion in Vancouver and the French Quarter on Granville Island. More than 90% of the slopes on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains will be open during the Games, so it's a chance to ski Whistler without the crowds while rubbing elbows with Olympians and enjoying free parties and celebrations in the village of Whistler. For information on free events and venues during the Olympics, go to citycaucus.com/2010freevenues. Other helpful links www.vancouver2010.com (the official site for the Games, with schedules, etc.) www.tourismvancouver.com www.whistler.com www.departurehubs.clickandpark.com (for shuttles between Vancouver and Whistler) For Canada travel www.hellobc.com; uscw.canada.travel -- J.C.