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Will the Olympics boost long-term tourism to B.C.?

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“We’ve invited the world, they’re coming, and the place is a mess.” That was the tag line the CCPA gave to our BC Solutions Budget back in 2004. At the time, we argued as strongly as we could that if BC was to change the story the world would tell of us this month, we needed to get busy tackling poverty and building social housing.  Sadly, that appeal went largely unheeded, until some frantic action on homelessness started up in 2007.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen the province and city make some important moves on the homelessness front. Frances Bula has a good summary of them on her blog (and the comments after her piece are very insightful too).

Most of the activity, however, as been aimed at reducing visible street homelessness (through opening new shelters), and defensive moves aimed at protecting the existing stock of low-income housing (through the provincial government’s purchases of SRO hotels). In contrast, we’ve seen very little and very slow action with respect to actually increasing the supply of new social housing.

Today saw the formal launch of Pivot’s Red Tent campaign, and the establishment of a tent city, both drawing attention to the need for more action on new social housing, and for a federal housing strategy.  We’ll see what the international media makes of all this.

Which still leaves the larger question of whether the Games will produce long-term economic benefits. Much of this hinges on whether the 2010 Olympics will produce a sustained increase in tourism.

Back in 2003, a government-commissioned economic impact report by InterVistas predicted a big boost to tourism leading up to the Games. But as a more recent economic impact study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers found, that did not transpire.

There will likely be a small economic boost during the Games themselves. Of course thousands of tourists, athletes and journalists have arrived, and their spending is an economic benefit. But mitigating this, thousands of local residents have chosen to flee the province, figuring now would be a good time to get out of town, and the departure of their local spending will be an economic loss. Hard to say what the net impact will be, but there will be clear winners and losers (some hotels and restaurants will be winners, while the local grocery store may see a loss).

But will there by a long-term increase in tourism? Hard to say. Depends somewhat on the weather (showing the world what this place looks like in February is always a crapshoot). If someone is a globe-trotting ski tourist, they were already well aware of Whistler long before the bid was won, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see real gains on that front.

The Games may produce a marginal increase in tourism for a few years. But in the longer term, I can’t stop wondering this –- in a world wrestling with climate change and peak oil, are people really going to be traveling like this, or will rising oil prices make the cost of air travel prohibitive? I suspect the days of destination ski travel and global tourism as we’ve seen it in recent decades are numbered. Consequently, as a province and country, we need to start putting our economic development eggs in something other than the trade and tourism basket.

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