Canada's Top Ski Area Whistles a Wealthy Tune

WHILE real estate prices are slumping in the rest of Canada, there's a boom in Whistler, British Columbia, home of the country's top ski resort.

In this town with a population of 5,000, there were 810 recorded real estate transactions last year worth $184 million (Canadian: US $132.6 million). Whistler is the Vail of Canada, attracting people from around the world.

''I try to come to my condo here at least three times a year,'' says a Dutch man riding the gondola to the top of the mountain at Whistler. He works for the Asian Development Bank in Manila. Many other skiers come from Hong Kong, Japan, and other Asian nations.

''Americans come here because of the 73 cent dollar, and Seattle is just a five-hour drive from here,'' says Mayor Ted Nebbeling, a Dutch immigrant who has prospered in Whistler's retail trade. ''But the Europeans are the market of the future. They can't find a place where they can ski 12 kilometers without stopping, and then the next day spend four or five hours hiking in the woods without seeing another person.''

Whistler is about an hour's drive north of Vancouver and eight to 12 hours from Europe and Tokyo. It has two mountains to ski, each one owned by a different resort: Whistler Mountain, which closed at the end of April; and Blackcomb, which is open until late May. The lifts for each mountain meet in the village.

The reason for the resorts' popularity with skiers is simple: Blackcomb is one mile high and has the highest vertical drop of any ski resort in North America; Whistler is just a couple of hundred feet shorter.

''We'll be back,'' says Jane Inglis, skiing with her husband, David, from Lancashire in England. ''We usually ski in France and Switzerland, but it's crowded, and the lift attendants have forgotten how to smile.''

While the permanent resident head count is 5,000, on a good ski day there can be 40,000 people or more in the village.

''The bed count is 35,000, and it will be 52,500 by the time all development is completed three to four years from now,'' says Michael d'Artois, who owns the local Re-Max real estate franchise. On a tour of the area, he points to one successful land development after another -- new houses being built for $1 million (Canadian: US $737,000) or more.

''Selling real estate in Whistler is like selling retail -- selling product off the shelf,'' says Mr. d'Artois, who moved here in the mid-1970s and took on the Re-Max franchise in 1985, when Whistler was just a local ski area having trouble finding money for development. ''Selling real estate here is like selling ski boots -- you just have to find the right fit.''

Whistler has expanded since d'Artois first entered the real estate business. There are now 80 real estate agents sharing the pie. While there are million-dollar houses on the side of the valley, the average price of condos and houses is fairly reasonable.

Last year, the average sale price of a single-family house was $376,000 -- up from $282,000 in 1993. Condominiums average about $225,000.

''We've had growth of 13 to 15 percent for each of the past five years,'' d'Artois says.

The area has attracted workers from across Canada.

''There's work here 12 months a year,'' says Gilles Perrier, a carpenter from Val d'Or Quebec working on a condo project called The Woods. ''I could never find that kind of work back home.''

Other people have moved businesses from eastern Canada to this resort. Judi Webster operates Judi's Antiques, which sells antiques from her home province of Quebec to furnish the new condos and houses of the resort.

''When I first came out here, I saw [that] eastern antiques hardly existed. So I go back three times a year and ship the antiques out here,'' Ms. Webster says.

Some people grumble that Whistler is becoming too developed. Those who work at the hill may not be able to afford living in the village. They must drive to other villages, such as Squamish or Pemberton, which are located a half hour or so away.

The mayor says there is a limit on growth. ''We have a cap on the total amount of development, and we're going to reach that in three to four years,'' Mr. Nebbeling says. ''That way people know their investment isn't going to be watered down by development in perpetuity.''

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