Faced with a deep budget deficit, ailing economy and young workers fleeing over the Rockies, Premier Gordon Campbell promised an economic cure in late 2002: a large boost in tourism from the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Selling the Olympic bid and its expected $6-billion price tag to British Columbians, Mr. Campbell found inspiration in a mega-event a generation earlier. The 1986 Expo fuelled an explosive growth in visitors during the five-month world’s fair. By the end of 1986, 5.8 million visitors passed through the city, two million more than the previous year.
“It will have a greater positive impact than Expo 86 did,” the former premier guaranteed in 2002, a year before Vancouver was granted the Games. A report commissioned by the government said the Games would be a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” to increase tourism.
A decade later, the final tally shows the Games fell far short of the promises.
“The increase in tourism just never happened,” said Robert VanWynsberghe, who headed the final Olympic impact report released last October. “Vancouver and Whistler might be the two places on the planet that need more tourists the least. We get a lot of tourists and the idea that we would see a significant increase was wishful thinking.”
During February, 2010, while the Games were being held, a record 547,357 visitors stayed in the Vancouver area, an increase of 99,318 over the previous year. By March, the number of tourists in Vancouver was back to normal.
By the following February, the number of visitors in the city was down to its lowest level in 12 years.
While the flood of tourists never materialized, the report concluded that the Games may have contributed to a “slightly higher than ‘normal’ increase” in visitors. One group that benefited from the hype was hotel owners, who were able to double the price of rooms during the Olympic month.
While the number of new visitors may have been minimal, one winner according to the Canadian Tourism Commission was the country’s image as a tourism destination. In the months after the Games, Canada was selected as the world’s number one national brand. It retained that station until 2012, when it slipped behind Switzerland.
“We leveraged the Olympic platform for highlighting Canada as a brand,” said Greg Klassen, the head of the federal tourism agency. “However we were unable to sustain that lift after 2010 as we had hoped.”
While the value of a brand can be difficult to define, Mr. Klassen cited the recent decision to move the 2014 TED talk from California to Vancouver as a legacy of the “confidence” provided by the Games.