Analysts Argue over Olympics Effect on BC Tourism

New report puts impact at zero so far, but another expert says 'more clever' counting yields rosier view.

By Andrew MacLeod 15 Nov 2009 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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Lured by 2010 buzz? Photo by user "Miss Barbanov" in The Tyee's Flickr pool.

The 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler are on their way to having a significant economic impact on British Columbia, but major risks remain.

That's the assessment of Mike Tretheway, a vice president of InterVISTAS Consulting and the author of a much-quoted 2002 report on Olympic impacts.

Tretheway spoke with The Tyee following the release of a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report that found the Olympics generated about $788 million worth of economic activity in B.C. between 2003 and 2008, but that tourism numbers have been well short of the most optimistic figures politicians have regularly quoted from the InterVISTAS report.

The Olympics have likely had more impact on visits to B.C. than the analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers found, he said. They said there had been zero impact. "That's something we at InterVISTAS dispute," he said. "Our view is some of the tourists we're seeing right now are likely here because of the Olympics."

While B.C. has seen a drop in tourism in recent years, it is difficult to say whether or not it might have been worse without the Olympics, he said.

Medium scenario on track

There have been people here doing security preparation for the games as well as those working on the technical aspects of various venues. Neither show up in the official tourism statistics the PwC researchers relied upon, he said. "It may exist -- you just have to do something more clever to find it."

Also, he said, resorts in other parts of the province -- including the Kootenays, Vancouver Island, Kelowna and Kamloops -- have seen a rise this year as people who would normally go to Whistler seek out alternatives. "There has been an uptick in tourism and bookings outside of the Vancouver region."

Tretheway's 2002 report predicted $4.2 billion worth of economic activity with the success of a major tourism marketing campaign before and after the games. When the impact of the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion was added, the figure ballooned to $10.7 billion, which is what politicians and government publications quoted -- at least until they reassessed last February.

But that was one of just four scenarios detailed in the report. At the bottom, based on low tourist visits and without the convention centre, was a $2 billion projection. The current total cost of the games is estimated at $7 billion.

So which scenario does Tretheway now think is most likely to be right?

Most likely it will be the medium visits scenario, which would see $2.4 billion in economic activity and 54,000 new jobs from the games, he said. Or it might be closer to the medium-high scenario, with a $3.3 billion boost to GDP and 77,000 jobs.

Asked about the lack of nuance in how politicians have quoted his report, Tretheway said, "What they quote is what they quote."

H1N1 may kill visits

The Olympics will have an impact -- though it remains to be seen how big an effect it is, said Tretheway, who taught courses in cost-benefit analysis at the University of British Columbia before joining InterVISTAS.

He said that a certain number of visits are virtually guaranteed and that many of the visitors who will come for the games won't be deterred by the economy. "The people who come for the Olympics tend not to be price sensitive or economic activity sensitive," he said. They include the athletes, their families, media, judges and security people. "All those people are going to come one way or another."

Tourists, on the other hand, may or may not come. Rising numbers of deaths from H1N1 in the province might discourage some people from coming during flu season, he said.

B.C. has been harder hit than most jurisdictions, with eight deaths last week attributed to H1N1 and 23 total for this fall.

"That could lead to people staying home," said Tretheway.

Another possible tourism killer would be a major terrorist attack, he said.

"We know that pandemics like SARS and terrorism like 9/11 can have an immediately negative impact," said Tretheway. "I personally worry the most about H1N1, and what impact between now and January that will have."

The future remains tough to predict.  [Tyee]

Read more: 2010 Olympics

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