Condition of the Coquihalla concerning for tourists

“They don’t make a show called Highway to Hell for nothing…”

Big White officials are concerned with a growing number of complaints about the highway that links the resort to its most significant client base.

“The reliability of the Coquihalla has never been this prominent in conversations with us,” said Michael Ballingall, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Big White Ski Resort.

“We hear about it every day.”

Regular reports of highway closures, eye witness accounts of transport trucks skidding out of control and a series of weather alerts from Environment Canada are making their way to their Lower Mainland clientele and they’re responding, said Ballingall. With every issue that arises, central reservations staff fields queries about road safety and requests to cancel reservations. Just last weekend, portions of the highway were closed at least twice.

RELATED: COQUIHALLA CLOSED AND REOPENED

That kind of frequency has even the mountain’s most loyal guests chiming in.

“Last year, family day weekend, we spent the night on the highway. It had become a skating rink. It was mayhem. Trucks and cars everywhere. We left at 2 p.m. and didn’t get to Big White until 6 a.m. and we were one of the fortunate ones. Our friends were turned around after spending hours on the highway and never made it. Others never made it to Big White until noon the next day,” reads one of the letters to Ballingall.

“This year, again on Family Day weekend we were once again re-routed due to the highway closure due to a multi-car accident and had to take Highway 3. We were also stuck on this highway as three semis had jack-knifed and cars couldn’t get through. This time it took us over eight hours to get through. We are re-considering Big White now as a vacation destination as we will not continue to drive the highways the way they are currently maintained and jeopardize our safety… they don’t make a show called Highway Thru Hell for nothing”

All in all, it’s the foundation of a perception problem that Ballingall says spells big trouble for tourism.

“A good portion of the tourism business is centred around perception, and when it comes to the Coquihalla, it’s at an all-time low,” he said.

That, he said, means it’s time to act.

“If someone asked what we’d do, I’d say the laws and the fines (for rigs) to chain up should be addressed,” he said, adding the fine’s for non-compliance are not high enough to obey the law.

He’d also like to see messaging change. When closure alerts are issued, he said there isn’t a great deal of follow up.

“We can only alert the powers that be on what the consumer is saying about the road,” he said.

Through that process he hopes some change can be delivered—it’s been the case previously.

Avalanche protocols through the Rogers Pass were such a concern at one point, that resort officials lobbied the government for change and it came to pass.

When asked for comment, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure acknowledged this has been a challenging winter, with “well above average amounts of snowfall for the Coquihalla.”

“In fact, this January the highway experienced 235 centimetres of snowfall, which is 153 cm more than last year,” said a ministry representative.

“On a high mountain pass, such as the Coquihalla, storm systems often bring extremely heavy and wet snowfall events and it only takes a few minutes for snow to accumulate and become compacted on the road surface.”

During winter storms, contractors have every available piece of equipment in use, and also increase the frequency of patrols when a winter weather event is forecasted and add extra enforcement for chain-up on the Snowshed Hill.

“The ministry recognizes the importance of this highway to the ski industry and makes every effort to ensure that the snow drawing skiers to the interior is not the same thing that keeps them away,” said ministry staff.

They added, that while the highway travels through some very challenging terrain, it’s important to recognize that the number of serious crashes continues to trend downwards over the last 10 years. They did not offer a number that could support that assertion.

“While we are concerned about the perception that highway conditions affect B.C.’s tourism industry by limiting skier visits, we are pleased that resorts like Sun Peaks near Kamloops posted a new record for skier visits last year,” said ministry staff.

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