El Niño boosts ski visits over 50 percent for Tahoe and the West | TahoeDailyTribune.com

El Niño boosts ski visits over 50 percent for Tahoe and the West

Sebastian Foltz
The National Ski Areas Association recently reported that ski visits in the West were up over 50 percent last winter compared to the previous year. Officials credit El Niño snowfall for returning the region to an average snowpack following four drought intensive winters.
Courtesy Rachid Dahnoun / Heavenly Mountain Resort |

“Snow equity.” It’s the term ski industry analysts have coined to refer to the strong correlation between snowfall, resulting media coverage and the impacts of both on visitation.

If you stood in a Tahoe Basin resort lift line at any point this winter, you probably noticed a few more folks back on the slopes than in recent drought-plagued years. Figures from the National Ski Areas Association and Denver-based ski industry lodging analysts DestiMetrics released this month illustrate just how significant the impact of this year’s El Niño was on the West.

“Snow came to the rescue in the Far West,” DestiMetrics director of operations Tom Foley said.

According to preliminary data from the NSAA, to which U.S. ski areas annually report visits and other information, visits for the southwest region (California, Nevada and Arizona) increased by 53.1 percent over the previous year, reaching a total of 7.38 million. The Pacific Northwest saw a staggering 141.5-percent boost to 4.83 million visits. Nationwide total visits reached 53,925,300, only a 0.6 percent increase over the previous year.

“It’s especially encouraging to see how strongly California roared back from four straight bad seasons of drought,” NSAA president Michael Berry said in a news release. “Our skiers and boarders came back this season with a vengeance.”

Foley said, at least anecdotally, it appears that some East Coasters my have opted to pass over Colorado in favor of destinations farther west in part due to substantial media coverage related to El Niño and cheaper lodging options.

Visits in the Northeast were also down 28.1 percent, largely a credit to a lower snow year there.

Rocky Mountain visitation increased by 7.6 percent. The marginal increase, however, still equates to a staggering 22.35 million visits when compared to the West.

While not quite as dramatic, lodging numbers also showed a significant increase, according to DestiMetrics.

Foley said far western destination lodging increased 27 percent over the previous season.

“It’s measured against a miserable year,” Foley clarified, adding, however, that it was also near record occupancy.

Since the company began close measurements of lodging properties in 2005, 47.5 percent occupancy was the record for the Far West. This year the region reached 47 percent.

“It’s very nearly a record year in and of itself,” he said.

Speaking to local indicators, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority executive director Carol Chaplin said, “Winter ended strong.”

The LTVA reported that California revenue was up 14 percent and Nevada was up 20 percent for the South Shore in March.

Regarding local business, Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce president B Gorman said, “Business levels were greatly improved over the past four drought winters with some businesses reporting they were at or above pre-recession levels. This was particularly true for the businesses in and around Heavenly Village.”

DestiMetrics reported that the entire West set occupancy and lodging revenue records, up 4.4 and 5.2 percent respectively.

Earlier in the season, the City of South Lake Tahoe reported a 43.35 percent year-over-year increase in tourism occupancy tax revenue for the month of December.

Whether or not the enthusiasm carries into next ski season may depend on early season snowfall next winter. Typically a strong winter can carry into the following season, but year-over-year consistency is a greater benefit, Foley said.

“We’re going to have to wait and see if snow falls,” he added.


DestiMetrics analysts also reported strong momentum heading into the summer season, with bookings already pacing well ahead of last summer.

May-through-October reservations that were on the books as of April 30 were up 11.6 percent for western destinations over the previous year.

Foley cited the increased efforts toward marketing summer activities and late summer/shoulder season offerings.

“Summer has been on a tear four years in a row,” he said, adding “there’s the September-October factor. It is growing dramatically.”

While the growth rate is higher in Rocky Mountain destinations because of less established summer offerings, he said destinations like Tahoe continue to see steady growth.

“We’re pinching ourselves,” Chaplin said, in reference to improved economic conditions. “This could be three strong seasons back to back.”

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