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Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden is a believer in cultural tourism as a way to diversify the resort’s offerings.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

This summer, Sue Adams entered the Audain Art Museum for the first time and had a moment. The place, she thought, was spectacular – even sans art and under construction (as it still is). But it was something more that prompted her tears: It was a concrete (or at least steel and wood) manifestation of a vision for Whistler she has had for some time.

Ms. Adams – who has co-owned The Grocery Store in Whistler Village for 28 years – saw the writing on the wall for the ski-resort town nearly a decade ago. Skiing and snowboarding, she observed, was a declining industry. She landed on cultural experiences as another way to draw people.

"I can't go and build another mountain. It's not my passion to create another sporting activity," says Ms. Adams, who now heads Whistler's Festivals, Events and Animation Committee and sits on the Audain museum's board. "I kind of hung my hat on the cultural thing."

This was around 2006 and she recalls being met with blank stares. "I think people were sort of thinking, 'We're a ski resort. Get over it. That's what we do.'"

Whistler does a lot more these days. Facing aging tourists who might be less inclined to ski or snowboard, as well as climate change – already having an impact on the mountain – Whistler is bullish on diversification. The summer season is increasingly hot (in every way). And especially in the wake of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad's success, it has become clear the arts are another way to keep them coming. In several recent reports, cultural tourism has been identified as an opportunity for economic diversification in Whistler.

"I actually call it the third leg of the stool," says Suzanne Greening, executive director of the Audain Art Museum.

This week, the Whistler Film Festival is in full swing and the Audain museum is nearing completion, and it no longer seems far-fetched to imagine people heading up the Sea to Sky Highway to indulge in some sort of cultural experience.

In Whistler, you hear this kind of story a lot: Nancy Wilhelm-Morden travelled here in 1973 for a two-week vacation to visit her then-boyfriend – and stayed. In 2011 she was elected mayor and is a big believer in cultural tourism as a way to diversify the resort's offerings.

"It differentiates us from our competition or from other vacation destinations," said Ms. Wilhelm-Morden this week, on her 38th wedding anniversary (same guy). "Certainly, the diversification is something that is top of mind when we see the impacts that weather can have."

Whistler has always had a summer offering, but summer visits are now outpacing winter ones (although winter remains the economic driver). August, 2015, was Whistler's busiest month on record for occupancy – even bigger than the Olympic month of February, 2010.

Looking at last winter, the lousy snowfall seems to have been a factor – 672 centimetres of snow compared to 905 cm the year before and 1,579 cm in 2010-11. Also, golf and mountain-biking are big summer draws. But so is cultural tourism. In July, 2015, occupancy levels spiked during the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's slate of performances. In summer 2014, Tourism Whistler says about two in five visitors participated in at least one arts and culture activity.

Whistler is experiencing hotter summers and to a lesser degree higher temperatures in winter. Blackcomb Mountain's Horstman Glacier offers visible evidence of climate change. People still ski and snowboard there in summer, but it's about half the size it was 100 years ago, according to Arthur De Jong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager for Whistler Blackcomb.

"Glaciers are the most sensitive ecosystem to temperature change; they're nature's thermometer," says Mr. De Jong. A new snow-building system was installed this year to reverse the retreat of the glacier; it's now in the pilot phase.

Shauna Hardy Mishaw was not thinking about climate change, cultural tourism or economic diversification when she and a friend dreamed up a film festival for Whistler in 2001. They were trying to fill a gap in town.

"There was no culture. Culture was après-skiing and dancing in a bar," she said Wednesday, hours before WFF's opening night.

The idea has made Ms. Hardy Mishaw, who quickly developed bigger ambitions for the festival, an arts pioneer in this mountain town. The festival, marking its 15th year, has been a catalyst for arts and culture in Whistler.

The festival has grown to the point where it can attract premiere screenings – and some celebrities, who are given awards or tributes (Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Carlyle this year).

The economic impact of the festival has been calculated at $2.8-million locally and $5.1-million provincially, according to WFF. (The figures are from 2011; a new analysis will be conducted this year.) And it fills hotel rooms at a slow time – the skiing is still iffy and people are busy with Christmas prep. "So without the film festival we definitely would feel it," says Ms. Wilhelm-Morden.

Other cultural draws locally include the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and October's Whistler Writers Festival. A new "Cultural Connector" will establish a pathway between cultural highlights. And as Ms. Adams points out, even sports festivals – such as Crankworx and the World Ski & Snowboard Festival – have cultural components.

But the jewel in the cultural tourism crown is the Audain Art Museum, rising on a forested flood plain in a former municipal works yard.

Scheduled to officially open March 5 – delayed from November – the 56,000-square-foot museum has been spearheaded and bankrolled by Vancouver philanthropist Michael Audain and will be installed with art from his extraordinary personal collection.

It will also host temporary exhibitions and there was quite a kerfuffle (in visual-arts circles, anyway) this fall when the Jeff Wall show that was supposed to open the museum was suddenly cancelled by the artist. The works had become unavailable. A Mexican Modernists exhibition will run instead.

"It helps position our museum as both a regional museum, because all the permanent collection is regional art, but also gives us a bit of an international exposure too with the Mexican [art]," says Mr. Audain, who would say little about the situation with Mr. Wall.

Ms. Greening, the Audain executive director, says she hopes the museum will ultimately attract 10 per cent of Whistler's total visitors – 2.7 million annually.

"For a lot of visitors, destination visitors, Whistler is their contact with Canada. They fly into YVR, get into a bus or rental car and then come up to Whistler for one or two weeks and then go home. So we have this great opportunity with visitors to show them something very special about B.C."