Vancouver's hotel shortage sets off an Olympic scramble

Visitors are being directed to the city's hostels and other alternative lodging choices.
Visitors are being directed to the city's hostels and other alternative lodging choices. (Remy Scalza)
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By Remy Scalza
Sunday, November 15, 2009

It doesn't take a gold medal in arithmetic to see that the numbers didn't add up.

About 250,000 spectators are expected to pour into Vancouver, B.C., for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in February. Yet according to the city's Olympic committee, only a paltry 10,000 hotel rooms were available to them. With three months to go before the Opening Ceremonies, the pool of rooms at hotels in and around Vancouver -- from highway HoJos to the Four Seasons -- has essentially dried up.

"Traditional downtown accommodation is for the most part booked," says Emily Armstrong of Tourism Vancouver, the city's tourism agency. "And it's been that way for about a year."

The Olympic housing crunch is nothing new: In recent years, Athens, Salt Lake City and Turin, Italy, all faced shortages. (The micromanaged Beijing Games were a notable exception.) It's not just the massive influx of spectators that's to blame. The "Olympic family" -- the tens of thousands of officials, observers, sponsors and media who make up the official Olympic entourage -- traditionally gets first dibs on lodgings. In Vancouver, the family blocked off more than 21,000 rooms, leaving ordinary fans to scramble for the remaining 10,000.

In a bid to avert a housing crisis, the city's Olympic planners have advanced some creative solutions. The 1,100-room Norwegian Star cruise ship will dock in an industrial port north of Vancouver, serving as a floating hotel for the duration of the Games, which will run Feb. 12-28. A popular city beach has been turned into an urban RV park, and provincial campgrounds around Vancouver will open early for fans who choose to brave frigid winter nights in the great outdoors.

"Accommodating everyone has never been a concern," Armstrong says. "People will just have to be a bit more flexible."

For some fans, being flexible might require bunking with strangers. With the housing well running dry, officials have also begun steering visitors to digs normally reserved for youth travelers, free spirits and the transient: backpacker hostels. "You can't find a better deal anywhere," says Del Cook, who handles check-in at the central Vancouver branch of Hosteling International, or HI, a popular hostel just blocks from several Olympic venues. The numbers bear him out: $40 buys a dorm bunk bed for the night and free breakfast during the Games. (By comparison, the airport Comfort Inn was recently offering a rare Olympic vacancy for $465 a night.)

The hostel is on the edge of the city's pub and club district, in a zone where ethnic restaurants and glitzy bars are gradually supplanting tattoo parlors and pawnshops. Inside the busy lobby, international travelers ask for directions in halting English while hip-hop plays in the background.

"We're the best hostel in town, and I've stayed in all of them," Cook says. For those to whom the word hostel brings to mind grungy showers and pots of instant ramen bubbling away on a communal stove, HI might be a pleasant surprise. Apart from traditional dorms, there are plenty of private rooms, and daily maid service, linens and towels are part of the deal. A former hotel, the historic building also comes with a roguishly checkered past: In 1971, undercover Mounties seized a record haul of 300 pounds of Japanese pearls from businessmen staying here; they'd been stolen from Seattle's airport in a bungled plot straight out of "Fargo."

Still, the charms of HI's chill-out lounge and raucous pub crawls presumably will be lost on certain Olympic visitors. Two blocks from the hostel -- on the 29th floor of a luxury apartment building -- is an entirely different accommodation alternative.

"I've never, ever rented before," says 44-year-old Randall Weaver, who has decided to lease his one-bedroom condo to Olympics fans for the Games. "But I'm an entrepreneur. I thought if I could get some money out of the Olympics, then why not?"

Weaver is not the only homeowner hoping to cash in on the city's housing crunch. In the prelude to the Games, dozens of temporary-rental Web sites have sprung up listing thousands of private Vancouver homes, from sleek, high-rise condos like Weaver's to suburban houses.

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