ASPEN - A significant decrease in the number of visitors from Australia this month compared with last year threatens to send Aspen's tourism economy down under.
Skier visits were already down 8 percent and lodge occupancies were down by double digits in Aspen and Snowmass Village heading into January. Domestic business was expected to pick up some of the slack for the lodging industry, but the loss of the Aussies was felt, according to operators of two major properties.
Joe Raczak, general manager of the North of Nell Condominiums, said Australians have been filling his property during January for several years. Their business was vital for weathering the recession.
"Without international business, especially Australia, we'd be hurting," he said.
But this season, the number of Aussies plummeted at North of Nell. He estimated revenues from Australian travelers were down 10 percent, while room nights were down 14 percent.
Business from Australia was strong for North of Nell from Jan. 3 to mid-month, and then it dropped off, Raczak said. Historically, January is the month Australians flock to North American ski resorts, he said. He isn't optimistic they are coming in later months this year.
Tim Clark, a partner at Frias Properties, said revenues from Australian business are down 22 percent so far this season for the company. The number of nights stayed by visitors from Australia is down 19 percent, while overall reservations are off 37 percent, he said.
Frias Properties manages the largest number of condominiums in and around Aspen's core. Business from Australia has become a bedrock over the past 10 to 15 years, according to Clark.
"It's significant because they stay for longer periods - generally two or three weeks," Clark said.
Longer stays typically translate into more lift tickets sold. Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle was cautious about discussing international business because, he said, Skico doesn't want its competition to glean any information. He confirmed that lift-ticket sales to Australians are down from last season, which was an incredibly strong year.
"We're still seeing tremendous growth from two years ago," Hanle said. "Australia is still very strong. It's up there as one of the top two markets."
Skico's other leading international market is Brazil, he said. Hanle said Skico officials are optimistic that business from Aussies will pick up later this season. He said it's too soon to determine if fewer visitors from Australia in January will translate to a further erosion of skier visits.
"Like everybody, we had a tough start with snowfall," Hanle said. "We made up some ground over the holidays."
The 8 percent decline in skier visits over the first third of the season is on the heels of a 1.8 percent decrease last season.
Business from Australia in Aspen was possibly exceptional last year because tourism to Japan tailed off so drastically following the devastating tsunami and earthquake of 2011. Raczak said tour operators from Australia told him Japanese resorts responded with deep discounts this season and successfully lured Aussie skiers.
Ralf Garrison, a partner in the Mountain Travel Research Project, a consulting company that tracks occupancy in several western U.S. ski resorts, said international business was critical to Aspen-Snowmass performing better than many other resorts in a tough season last year.
"You guys were just about flat last year, when others were down significantly," Garrison noted.
Aspen, like Vail, has the international name recognition that pulls in overseas guests.