Whistler’s appealing balanceA small BC town is the go-to location for investors at all levels

Like golf, skiing has a long history of affluent lifestyle and a cache of exclusivity that has made investment in ski resorts something of a rising star lately. The sport may not be everyone’s ideal leisure endeavour — it does, after all, run the risk of broken bones — but hitting the slopes has been the choice vacation for the glitterati for years. It doesn’t hurt that apres-ski activities can involve warm brandy.

Tucked amid the Pacific Ranges of Coast Mountains about an hour north of Vancouver is Whistler, Canada’s premier ski destination. Though the town has a full time population just shy of 10,000, upwards of two million reside in Whistler at some point every year for its skiing, snowboarding, golfing, hiking and mountain biking. Despite the most frequent images of a snow-blanketed Whistler seen in the media, it is a year-round destination that some would argue is even more appealing in the summer.

Whistler hosted the alpine events during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and though it certainly didn’t need the PR to prop itself up as a destination, it remains something of a hidden gem. Growth has been steady since development began in the 1960s, just ahead of when the area’s first resort, Whistler Blackcomb, opened for business. But easy access from Vancouver — the primary driver for the town’s growth over the last 30 years — a wealth of four-season outdoor activities and a broad range of property options have made Whistler a fixture on the investment map for some time. It’s already been through the growing pains and is well positioned for the future. At this point, “Whistler is a blue chip. It’s not oversold and I’d say its value today is as good as it’s been in a decade,” states Pat Kelly, Whistler Real Estate Company’s president and owner. “Combine that with Canadian political and economic stability and it’s very attractive not just for growth but for safety.”

According to WREC the vast majority of investors in Whistler property are from nearby Vancouver, other parts of British Columbia and local Whistler residents. The next largest group hails from other parts of Canada, the United States and the UK and most owners are end-users. However that does not preclude investment opportunities. “We have about 5,000 properties that are orientated towards people who may not be in Whistler every weekend,” Kelly notes. “In the world of ski resorts we’re a major player that has set the rules of how it works successfully for investors for many, many years.”

A combined 5 percent of sales transactions to October 31 last year involved Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asian purchasers. WREC’s research stated the strongest sector was in townhouses but overall sales increased by approximately 7 percent. Prices ranged from affordable condominium suites at just over CA$250,000 (HK$1.9 million) to standalone houses at around $1.25 million ($9.4 million).

Those diverse price points complement Whistler’s other selling points: its low-key vibe — leave the movie star attitude at home — and value for money, particularly when compared to the likes of Aspen or Gstaad. While Sotheby’s International Realty has luxury Whistler properties priced at CA$15 million available, Aspen (US$40 million) or Gstaad (“price upon request”) can demand much more, sometimes for much less. “They’re allowed some very big house sizes there and I think that drives it,” Kelly theorises of the super-estates of Colorado. “Whistler doesn’t have any of that over-the-top, 30,000 square feet that only the Sultan of Brunei can afford. It’s a family oriented, low-key [place].”

That said, emerging ski destination Niseko (allegedly modelled on the Whistler blueprint) offers more reasonable, entry-level investments with an eye to future growth. Kelly disagrees with that, but more crucially Niseko’s infrastructure pales in comparison to Whistler’s, which has some of the best outdoor activity and lifestyle infrastructure anywhere on the planet. It’s what attracts buyers from further afield. “We have a huge Hong Kong and Australian contingent. It’s a more complete resort. There are five golf courses, 20 spas and every possible entertainment, and it accommodates everybody. It’s better skiing. Niseko is well known for the quality of their snow, but we have a longer season, the accommodations and the facilities. A lot of other resorts could be a little on the oversold side. That’s not marketing talk. The mountains tell it.”

Rental income can be found at every level in Whistler, and investors looking for a usable revenue stream might want to browse now. “The problems worldwide over the last four years have created buying opportunities. It’s a good time to be looking at Whistler,” admits Kelly. And though the Loonie has been on fire of late, it hasn’t scared off serious buyers, with the exception of Americans pining for the 66-cent exchange rate years. “Prices have adjusted to the point for international buyers [that] it’s not a huge change. And again, when they’re looking at what their dollars will buy in other locations we come out favourably.

“I would say that today Whistler is a lifestyle community,” Kelly summaries. “You can visit or you can live there. And not very many resorts can say that.”