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Globe & Mail
November 24, 2006

Ski resorts give Chile a lift in quest to lure travel dollars


By Jen Ross
“I started coming here because this is the only place where they have snow in the summer time,” says Andrea Toth, an avid 26-year-old snowboarder from New Jersey.
Chile wants to boost the influx of tourists from the current 2 million a year, to 3 million by 2010.
“We like to get winter snow conditions so travelling to the southern hemisphere is a good option at this time of year,” coach of the B.C. ski team, Dale Stephens.

While many Canadians are planning their ski vacations this winter, some are making plans to hit the slopes next summer, at the other end of the hemisphere.

Far-flung places like Chile might seem like a costly stretch for Canadian skiers, who have lots of snow and ski resorts like Whistler a domestic flight away. But this South American country has geography on its side.

With the second-highest mountain chain in the world towering above its modern capital, Chile’s jagged, snow-capped Andes are the perfect setting for above-the-tree-line skiing or snowboarding. And the seasons are reversed south of the Equator, so Chile is chilly from June to October.

“I started coming here because this is the only place where they have snow in the summer time, except New Zealand, but I’m told it’s much better here,” says Andrea Toth, an avid 26-year-old snowboarder, who has flown south to Chile from New Jersey, during the past three summers.

Strapping on her board, she stares out across the landscape at the Valle Nevado resort, which lies nestled at the foot of the imposing El Plomo Peak. Perched 3,000 metres above sea level, the resort gets the ideal amount of snowfall (seven metres a season); the snow is dry and stable and the temperature averages -2 C.

It’s no wonder Chile is hoping to sell itself to tourists from northern climes as the best place to have a winter vacation next summer.

Chile’s tourism industry is in its infancy. It has grown slowly but steadily, but lags behind neighbouring Argentina, where tourism is the fourth biggest contributor to national GDP. Any visitor who’s encountered a curt waiter in a pricey Santiago restaurant can attest to Chile’s lax service and hospitality. The state has also pumped little money or effort into promoting the country as a tourist destination abroad, expecting tourists to stumble upon its hidden riches by word of mouth, or gushing travel guides.

But last week, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced a change of strategy, after winning a $40-million (U.S.) grant from the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). It aims to boost the influx of tourists from the current 2 million a year, to 3 million by 2010. The IADB believes such an increase would bring an extra $2-billion in revenues.

As part of the drive to promote Chile’s tourism industry, the government wants to create a new Subsecretary for Tourism, and it will increase the budget for the National Tourism Service by 128 per cent, spending $7 million in 2007 to pitch its various destinations. The government plans to target northern countries with big-spending travellers, which means plugging Chile’s more exclusive attractions, like its emerging ski resorts.

And they’re already receiving record numbers of visitors - a third of which are from abroad. Miguel Purcell, president of the Chilean Association of Ski Centers, says the largest resorts saw a 35 per cent increase in business in 2005, and a further 15 per cent increase in their tourist traffic during the 2006 season - which ended in October.

The country’s 15 ski centres have made a flurry of new investments. Valle Nevado has spent $1 million per year, even buying two helicopters to bank on the latest trend: heliskiing. Valle Nevado sold 140,000 lift tickets last year - with roughly 50,000 of their visitors staying overnight. And they’ve managed to double their North American traffic over the past seven years - with 10,000 overnight stays, up from 5,000 in 1999.

Portillo is perhaps South America’s best-known ski resort. Of the 54,000 skiers who took to Portillo’s slopes this year, 80 per cent were foreigners, and 30 per cent of them were North American.

The Canadian Olympic ski team is among Portillo’s regular clientele: “We like to get winter snow conditions so travelling to the southern hemisphere is a good option at this time of year,” says coach Dale Stephens, who has been going to Chile to train for 15 years. He has worked with the Canadian and U.S. teams, and is now coaching the British Columbia men’s ski team. They do a yearly three-week training trip to Chile every September.

“Ski, historically, has always been quite an exclusive sport, but with snowboarding, ski centres have become more accessible,” says Kees Aerts, general manager for ski resort Valle Nevado. “You see a sort of trend over the last few years. The same as happened with tennis, with golf, that is happening now with the ski world.”

But Ms. Toth, the snowboarder from New Jersey, points out Chile’s resorts are far from affordable.

“There’s a lot missing as far as access to the resorts. I mean they do have the buses that bring you up but they have few hostels and no super markets,” she says. “But I’ve seen a lot of change in the past three years and I’m sure that in the next five years, Chile’s ski industry may be up to the same scale as in the States.”

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