British Columbia

Whistler Blackcomb opens for the ski season as day-trippers told to stay away

After many months of planning, Whistler Blackcomb has opened for the ski season with pandemic protocols in place. But, for perhaps the first time in its history, the resort municipality is hoping that tourists and day-trippers will stay away.

Provincial health officer advises against travelling to Whistler until at least Dec. 7

Whistler Blackcomb opened today with COVID-19 protocols in place, including mandatory face coverings. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

After many months of planning, Whistler Blackcomb has opened for the ski season with pandemic protocols in place. 

But, for perhaps the first time in its history, the resort municipality is hoping that tourists and day-trippers will stay away.

While many people may be excited to hit the slopes, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has advised against any non-essential travel as B.C. tries to get a grip on rising COVID-19 cases. 

Last week, Henry urged people to postpone any vacations or plans they have for Whistler and to visit their local mountains instead — and no, Whistler does not count as local if you live in Vancouver or Surrey.

Her recommendations came along with a string of provincewide orders that are in effect until Dec. 7.

Physically distanced lineups are part of skiing at Whistler Blackcomb in 2020. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

On Wednesday, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton echoed Henry's message to avoid non-essential travel at this time.

"The goal is to defeat COVID-19 and it's our No. 1 priority from a health perspective as well as an economic perspective. Ignoring those actions that will flatten and remove the curve is counter to both our health and our economy, so we take the direction that's provided by public health very seriously," he said.

"We are happy to take the leadership provided by [Henry] ... but it'll be the most challenging winter season that I've been a part of," added Crompton, who has worked in Whistler for more than 15 years.

For those who make it onto the slopes, the experience is sure to be different. From getting a ticket to riding the lift, many things have changed. 

This year pass holders have to make a reservation to ski at Whistler Blackcomb as part of efforts to limit the number of people on the mountains due to COVID-19. (Tina Lovegreen/CBC)

Vail Resorts, which owns and operates Whistler Blackcomb, announced in August it would require pass holders to make a reservation in an effort to limit capacity and maintain physical distancing. 

Their new online system prioritizes pass holders and limits lift ticket sales, which will be available Dec. 8 after pass holders reserve their priority days. 

Face coverings are required to access the mountain and are mandatory at all Whistler Blackcomb facilities. On-mountain dining is open, but bookings are required and cash payment is not accepted. 

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton says this ski season has been challenging because of the pandemic. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

On Vancouver Island, Mount Washington Alpine Resort is scheduled to open on Dec. 4.

Marketing manager Kayla Stockton said it is helpful to see how other resorts are managing during the pandemic before they welcome island skiers next Friday.

Like Whistler Blackcomb, face masks will be mandatory and on-mountain dining will be open with some restrictions.

There will be no lounging indoors and customers will only be able to enter facilities for food or restrooms. Food trucks will be available on occasion, and people are asked to change into their winter gear in their vehicles.

Mount Washington Alpine Resort, located about 30 kilometres west of the Comox Valley, is scheduled to open on Dec. 4. Under current public health protocols, no one outside of the Island Health region should be heading up the hill. (CBC)

"We are really encouraging guests to come prepared," said Stockton in a Thursday interview on CBC's On The Island

This, she said, means knowing what activities you want to partake in and booking in advance, not whipping up Washington on a whim for a run or two.

And for the time being, visitors to the island ski hill, according to current public health restrictions, must only be islanders.

Pilot Jan Nademlejnsky flew over Sun Peaks on opening day, Nov. 21, to capture spectacular aerial views of the mountain and surrounding areas. (Jan Nademlejnsky/Youtube)

But for resort towns, going without tourists for too long is going to be financially damaging.

 Sun Peaks, northeast of Kamloops, B.C., greeted visitors on Nov. 21 with similar COVID-19 protocols in place. 

Sun Peaks Mayor Al Raine described it as one of the resort's best openings, with perfect blue skies and fresh powder.

But the financial hit to the resort municipality could be as much as $30 million, he said. Crompton did not provide a financial figure, but described Whistler as a "one-industry town" that usually sees three million visitors each year.

"Those people not being around this year will be hard financially," Crompton said.

'The goal is to defeat COVID-19 and it's our No. 1 priority,' says Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Raine urged people to do their part to contain transmission of the coronavirus, so that travel for skiing is once again safe. 

"We can make a difference. If we all pay attention, we'll have a ski season. If we get a lot of people who relax way too much and don't pay attention, then ski season could be in jeopardy," Raine said.

"The bright light on the horizon is that certainly with vaccinations and this time next year, hopefully this will all be history."