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Visits to Colorado ski areas in 2023-24 slightly down from prior year’s record

Since 2021, resorts have been pumping record sums into new lifts, terrain and infrastructure
The line looked long on the second day of 2020-21 operations at Vail ski area on Saturday, Nov. 21, but it was moving quickly. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun file)

Colorado ski resorts fared better than most others in 2023-24, with visitation reaching 14 million.

That’s a dip from the record 14.8 million visits logged by 27 Colorado ski areas in 2022-23. The slow arrival of snowfall in December troubled every ski area in the country and, while that changed for Colorado with bountiful snowfall in January, February and March, many regions endured below-average snow conditions for the entire season. All six regions tracked by the National Ski Areas Association showed declines in visitation in 2023-24, with 60.4 million visits, down 5 million from the previous season.

“This season was a roller-coaster ride, starting off on the warm-and-dry side and ending with a notably snowy extended season that stretched deep into spring,” Colorado Ski Country chief Melanie Mills said in a statement announcing the early visitation tally. “Ski areas saw strong season pass sales and a robust economy, despite inflation, that buoyed visitation.”

Spending in Colorado ski towns hit record highs in 2023-24. The Colorado Sun tracks net taxable sales in 18 small and large municipalities next to ski areas in Colorado and total spending from November through March reached $4.5 billion, up from $4.4 billion in the record-setting 2022-23 season and up 50% from the pre-pandemic 2018-19 season.

That increase in the economic impact of winter visitors jibes with a new economic analysis of the ski resort industry in Utah. The 15 ski areas in Utah attracted a record 7.1 million visits in 2022-23 and spending by nonresident skiers reached $1.94 billion, according to a study released in April by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. Residents added $694 million in spending at the state’s ski resorts. Overall spending was up 63% from the 2018-19 season. (Utah has not yet released skier visits for the 2023-24 season.)

Lodging occupancy in 17 mountain resort communities in the West tracked by DestiMetrics, a division of Inntopia, was down 4.2% for the 2023-24 winter, compared with record occupancy in 2022-23. But lodge owners kept rates high – up 2.8% from the previous season – which offset the declines in total revenue for a slight 1.6% decline in lodging revenue earned from the roughly 18,000 units tracked by DestiMetrics in seven Western states.

The National Ski Areas Association’s six-state Rocky Mountain region, which includes Colorado, reported 26.7 million visits, down from the record 28.2 million in 2022-23. From the 2019-20 season through the 2022-23 season, visits to Rocky Mountain region ski areas increased at least 10% a year. The decline in 2023-24 marks the first downturn for the Rocky Mountain region since 2019.

Eastbound and westbound traffic counts through the Eisenhower and Johnson Memorial Tunnels on Interstate 70 reached 4.4 million from December through March in 2023-24, down slightly from the same period of 2022-23.

Industry health is better measured by investment

Visits are no longer the best barometer for the health of the ski resort industry, as use shifts with the growing number of season passes. A decade ago, about 38% of visits were by skiers using season passes. For a second year in a row, more than 50% of all visits are by season-pass holders as both Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. attract more skiers to the Epic and Ikon passes and smaller ski areas join multi-resort pass programs like the Indy Pass and Mountain Collective. While season pass sales hit record highs, the average use of those passes is declining, hitting a 10-year low of 7.4 days in 2022-23, according to national industry reports.

Participation totals are not yet tallied for the 2023-24 ski season but the 2022-23 season was a high mark, with an estimated 11.6 million Americans going skiing, up from 10.7 million in 2021-22. The 2022-23 season was the third consecutive winter with increased participation in skiing.

A better measure of resort industry health is investment. Since 2021, resorts have been pumping record sums into new lifts, infrastructure, terrain expansions and on-mountain facilities. In 2022-23, U.S. resort operators invested an all-time high of $818.1 million, including nearly $250 million on 149 new or upgraded chairlifts. That was more than double the investment of the 2021-22 ski season. Resorts in the Rocky Mountains invested $465.5 million in 2022-23 – that’s an average of $35 for every skier visit – up from $221.8 million in 2021-22.

Investment by U.S. ski areas in 2024-25 is expected to top $500 million, including plans for 71 new or improved lifts, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Vail Resorts, which reported an 8% decline in visits in 2023-24 across its 37 North American ski areas, including Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte, plans to invest between $219 million and $224 million at its resorts in the U.S., Australia, Canada and Europe for the 2024-25 ski season.

Vail Resorts, the largest resort operator in North America, told investors the decline in visitation to its resorts in 2023-24 was connected to an annual 28% drop in snowfall at its western North American resorts. Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch told investors in early June that the season’s declining visitation was also part of a “broader industry normalization post-COVID” following record visitation in 2022-23.

Despite the decline in visits, Vail Resorts reported a record $1.28 billion in revenue from its season pass and lift ticket sales, ski school, retail, restaurant and lodging operations in February, March and April this year. The company told investors it earned $654 million from that revenue in its fiscal third quarter that ended April 30.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.