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Aspen sees 3.5% hike in skier visits

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Colorado ski resorts posted a 4.29 percent increase in skier visits last winter, outpacing Aspen/Snowmass, which reported a 3.5 percent gain in a season that featured some of the best snow in recent memory, along with worries about war and a stagnant national economy.

Colorado resorts saw 11,605,588 skiers and boarders on the slopes in 2002-03 – an increase of 477,457 from the prior winter, when ski areas watched numbers dip 4.5 percent in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The recently completed winter season (only Arapahoe Basin remains open) was down about 374,000 skier visits from the record season of 1997-98, noted Rob Perlman, president and chief executive officer of Colorado Ski Country USA.

The ski industry trade organization released skier visit totals Thursday, during its annual meeting at Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek.

The Aspen Skiing Co., along with several other resort operators, announced its numbers as well. Colorado Ski Country won’t release skier visits posted by its 24 individual member resorts until the end of the summer.

Aspen/Snowmass logged more than 1.3 million skier visits at its four mountains last winter – an increase of 44,520 over the challenging 2001-02 season.

While the Skico’s 3.5 percent gain lags behind the state overall, it bests many of its competitors in the destination-resort market. Overall, the destination-resort category – ski areas that depend on international and out-of-state visitors for much of their business, as does Aspen/Snowmass – posted only a 2.6 percent increase.

Last season was only the second time in the last five seasons that destination resorts as a group have seen a jump in numbers.

The comparison to other destination resorts is both telling and encouraging, according to David Perry, Skico senior vice president.

“That’s a number that we look at,” he said. “I’m encouraged. I think we compare favorably with our competition.”

Colorado Ski Country classifies the four Aspen/ Snowmass mountains as destination resorts, along with most other Western Slope resorts, including Telluride, Steamboat, Crested Butte, Durango Mountain Resort and Sunlight Mountain Resort outside Glenwood Springs.

The larger gains posted by state ski areas overall are no surprise, Perry added. The Front Range resorts continue to post higher skier numbers, fueled by the growing Front Range population and hugely discounted ski passes among competing resorts.

Ski Country’s so-called Front Range destination resorts – Arapahoe Basin, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Vail, Winter Park and SolVista – saw a 4.4 percent increase.

Front Range resorts – Eldora, Loveland and Ski Cooper – reported a 14.2 percent jump in skier visits.

Skier visits, defined as one person visiting a ski area for all or any part of a day, were up most significantly at Snowmass and Aspen Highlands, while Aspen Mountain posted a modest increase and numbers at Buttermilk actually dropped slightly.

Aspen Highlands, where all of the extreme terrain of Highland Bowl opened for the first time last season, actually saw its best numbers in the past seven years with 157,317 skier/boarder visits.

“I think it’s absolutely the effect of the bowl,” Perry said. “Having great skiing in the bowl from start to finish certainly helped.”

Local pass-holders, especially, helped bump up the numbers at Highlands, but the number of destination guests seeking out the slopes of Highlands was up, as well, he said.

Overall, the increase in skier visits at Aspen/Snowmass was pretty evenly split between an increase in the number of days residents hit the slopes and a hike in skier days logged by visitors, according to Perry.

Last fall, Perry predicted Aspen/Snowmass should return to its numbers of two winters ago, all things being equal. To do so would have meant about a 5 percent jump in visits.

“We did fall slightly short of that number,” he said. “The last month of the season was disappointing. We were tracking significantly ahead until the last week in March.”

Vail Resorts, which operates four Colorado ski areas, reported 1.61 million skier visits at Vail, a 4.9 percent increase over 2001-02, while Beaver Creek logged a record 718,000 visits, up 9.1 percent. The opening of the Ritz-Carlton at Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek – where resort executives gathered for this week’s annual Ski Country meeting – has been credited for the huge jump at Beaver Creek by Vail Resorts officials.

Keystone, also operated by Vail Resorts, logged 1 million visits, down 2.8 percent; and Breckenridge, with 1.42 million visits, was down 3 percent.

Colorado Ski Country’s Perlman expressed satisfaction with last winter’s overall numbers. The season was marked by abundant snowfall that led to early openings at a number of resorts, but hampered by a volatile economy, the war in Iraq and a troubled airline industry, he noted.

Perlman said the state’s ski industry has reason to be optimistic about the upcoming season.

“With national skier visits projected to hit an all-time record, the economy moving in a more positive direction and the promising upward trend of our skier visits this year, things are looking up for the Colorado ski industry,” he said in a press release.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]


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