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On the way up to Whitewater, just south of Nelson, B.C., a digital sign along the road declared, “Locals Only.” The sign came down at the end of the holidays, its removal coinciding with B.C.’s ban on non-essential travel.
Despite the ban, which strongly discourages residents from travelling outside of their communities, Nelson residents have noticed cars with out of province licence plates in the resort parking area. They have also seen officials recording those licence plates.
In Ontario, as the Family Day long weekend and March Break approach, residents of that province are looking jealously to their neighbours to the east and to the west wondering how they were able to keep their ski hills open.
In every province but Ontario, in fact, ski resorts have been permitted to remain open Rules have changed: people must wear masks and keep to their bubbles while hill capacity has been reduced. In Quebec, night skiing ends at 7:00 pm in order for skiers to make it back to their homes before the 8:00 pm curfew.
For some resorts, new protocols have been ineffective in controlling the spread of the virus. At Big White in Kelowna, B.C., an outbreak of coronavirus has grown to 225 cases as of late January. Outbreaks have also been recorded at Lake Louise and Nakiska Ski Area in Alberta.
According to Ontario Snow Resort Association president Kevin Nichol, the province’s ski and snowboard industry has lost between $88 million and $90 million and has shed approximately 9,000 jobs as of the end of 2020.
These losses come on the heels of major investments made by resorts to implement new safety measures. Prior to the start of the season, Mount Pakenham near Ottawa had spent $800,000, part of which went to reorganize their space to accommodate physical distancing protocols. Many operators in Ontario fear that they will lose the entire season.
A growing industry
In other parts of Canada, however, ski resorts have been slammed with visitors. This has caused traffic gridlock and long lift lines – the result of a growing industry combined with a shortage of other permitted activities due to the virus.
The Ski and Snowboard Resorts industry in Canada is expected to grow by 8.1% in 2021, according to global research firm IBISWorld. The billion-dollar industry includes 275 ski areas, which attract 19 million visitors per season, according to Canadian Ski Council estimates.
Big money has been chasing fresh ‘pow’ for the last few years, starting with Vail’s acquisition of Whistler-Blackcomb in 2016. The following year Alterra Mountain Company acquired Ontario’s Blue Mountain and Mont Tremblant in Quebec when it took over Intrawest Resort Holdings in a $1.5 billion deal.
In B.C., Northland Properties Group acquired Grouse Mountain at the beginning of 2020, repatriating the hill from Chinese investors who had bought it two years prior. Northland is one of the key investors in the massive $3.5 billion Garibaldi at Squamish ski resort along the Sea-to-Sky Highway that’s anticipated to open in 2025.
A new backcountry ski resort is being proposed for the B.C. interior. Located in the Selkirk Mountains in the Central Kootenays, the carbon neutral Zincton Mountain Village would span 12,000 acres, making it larger than Whistler-Blackcomb.
Construction is about to start on the high-alpine ski resort near Valemount, B.C. in the Rocky Mountains. The glacier resort would be the first in North America to offer year-round skiing. With elevations of over 9,800 feet, it would also have one of the largest vertical drops in the world. The cost of the 2,000 acre resort is pegged at $100 million, but could reach $500 million once the entire village is built out.
All of this is exciting news for skiers and boarders but might be of little comfort for those in Ontario who have been sidelined until Ontario’s State of Emergency is lifted and ski resorts get the greenlight to reopen.