The U.S. ski industry was hit by the recession last winter, but perhaps not as hard as some economists might have predicted.
Ski areas nationwide tallied 57.1 million visits during the 2008-09 season, a 5.5 percent drop from the record 2007-08 season of 60.5 million visits, the National Ski Areas Association announced Friday in a preliminary report. The estimate makes the 2008-09 season the fifth most active ski season on record.
The Colorado-based ski industry trade association defines a skier visit as "one person visiting a ski area for all or part of a day or night." The figures include snowboarders and people using ski areas with complimentary tickets.
Association President Michael Berry said generally favorable snow and weather conditions in most parts of the country during much of the season provided a strong counterbalance to the challenging economic conditions.
The association's research showed that destination ski resorts—such as Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Telluride, Colo.—were affected substantially more by the recession than "day-ski areas" close to cities, Berry said.
Skier visits in Sun Valley last season were down by nearly 20 percent, while some Eastern ski areas close to cities set records.
"The farther away from town you were, the more difficult it was," Berry said.
He said the drops at destination resorts were almost certainly linked to the bad economy.
"I think some people were looking hard at their finances," he said. "Some traditional resort visitors stayed home and others just booked shorter stays."
Berry said ski areas near population centers could direct more of their marketing at single-day or short-stay skiers, but destination resorts did not have a strong alternative market to tap into.
Over the last 10 seasons, the industry has averaged 56.7 million visits, the National Ski Areas Association reported. The Rocky Mountain region, with 19.79 million visits, was up 1.3 percent from its 10-year average.
Berry said he believes the tally for last season shows the ski industry is holding strong.
"All in all, for the industry to be off about 5 percent, we consider this a really good year," he said.
As for the future, Berry said he believes the key could be the stock market, which might dictate consumer confidence.
"If the Dow goes above 9,500, I think we could see 57 or 58 million next year," he said.
The association will issue a final, more definitive report on skier visits in July.