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Whistler festival attracts visitors from around world to raise rainbow banner

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WHISTLER, B.C. - When a group of skiers glides down a mountain carrying a giant rainbow banner that will be handed off to participants in the Whistler pride parade, the town will be buzzing with visitors from around the globe.

One of the world's top-rated ski resort communities will turn into party central during the annual gay ski festival as the municipality proclaims Pride Week and raises a rainbow flag to welcome gays from 25 countries.

WinterPRIDE organizer Dean Nelson says about 3,000 people are expected at the sports, cultural and entertainment event that runs till Sunday.

Besides taking to the hills, participants will have a chance to enjoy dogsledding, snowmobile tours, tubing, ziplining, cooking classes and dance parties featuring top DJs from Barcelona and San Francisco.

The Mr. Gay Canada contest will also be held during the eight-day extravaganza, with the winner moving on to the world finals in Rome in August.

Most of the fun seekers will make the trek from across Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, but more participants than ever are arriving from Croatia and Lithuania this year, Nelson says.

Many of them will have heard about the 22nd annual festival at the World Outgames in Antwerp, Belgium, where it was promoted last summer, he says.

In 2010, WinterPRIDE organizers created Pride House at Whistler for gay athletes and the public during the Olympics, further raising the festival's profile.

"It was our initiative to raise awareness of homophobia in sport and that has really put Whistler out there as one of the ski resorts in the world that is inclusive and diverse," Nelson says. "It was the first time in Olympic history where diversity was celebrated and homophobia was talked about. London picked up the idea with Pride House in 2012."

Nelson says representatives from the City of Toronto, Tourism Toronto, Tourism Ontario and Pride Toronto will also be at WinterPRIDE this year to talk up that city's World Pride event, the first time it will be held in North America, as part of the annual Pride Toronto event this summer.

WinterPRIDE, which began as a small gathering in 1992, has increasingly involved the wider Whistler community.

"We work with local yoga studios and people do yoga retreats while their partner's out skiing," Nelson says.

While the festival is open to lesbians, transgendered people and bisexuals, Nelson says it draws mostly gay men, although there are a few events for women, such as the WOW party — the Women of Winter Pride dance — on Saturday.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says the resort town recognizes the value of diversity in its important tourism sector.

"I know in speaking with people who come to WinterPRIDE from around the world that they do feel very welcome and safe," says Wilhelm-Morden, who will be a judge at the Mr. Gay Canada finale and fashion show.

The Whistler Chamber of Commerce runs an annual program for service-industry workers and it includes dealing with diverse groups such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, she says.

"We get people, young people especially, from all over the world who want to come to Whistler and work in the service industry. They may be coming from countries that have a little bit of a different attitude toward the LGBT community than Canadians, and specifically Whistlerites do. So there is some sensitivity training that does occur, and it's being expanded."

WinterPRIDE injected $4.8 million into the local economy last year, according to a study commissioned by the municipality, says Wilhelm-Morden, noting the inevitable millions of dollars in spin-off benefits for the rest of British Columbia.

For Nelson, the festival is a chance for people who have not always felt accepted to come together and "just be ourselves."

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If You Go...

For more information, visit www.gaywhistler.com/

To get to Whistler from downtown Vancouver, drive west over Lions Gate Bridge to West Vancouver and turn right onto Taylor Way. Turn left onto Highway 99 north (Sea-to-Sky Highway) at the sign for Horseshoe Bay and continue driving about two hours to Whistler.

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