Record number of visits follows two miserable seasons for owners of resorts

DENVER - Despite a slowing economy, the ski industry rebounded from two dismal years to set a record for skier and snowboarder visits this past winter.

Plentiful snow and cheap tickets lured skiers and snowboarders to the mountains to the tune of 57.3 million visits, according to preliminary figures released by the National Ski Areas Association.

The total was up 10 percent from the previous season and up 5 percent from the record set during the 1993-94 season, the association reported.

"Because of relatively consistent snowfall, the season got off to a great start," Bill Jensen, Vail's chief operation officer, said.

"The best news of all is that the smaller ski areas in the regional markets, the core of skiing, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, all had strong years. That bodes well for the destination resorts,"

"It was incredible. We're still skiing here. We will hopefully go right into June," said Kim Jackson, spokeswoman for the Killington resort in Vermont.

At Mammoth Mountain in southern California, spokeswoman Joani Saari said: "We've already passed our season-long budgeted number for skiers and boarders by 11 percent and we have a month to go."

Jackson and Saari said the better conditions and lower prices brought many skiers back to the slopes, perhaps for the first time in years.

"We can tell because we saw tons of people on older, straight skis," said Jackson. Many avid skiers have shunned straight skis for the newer shaped skis because they turn easier.

Another factor in the increase, some industry officials say, are discounted ski passes that most resorts have implemented in the past three winters.

"Skiing had dropped off the radar screens for families because of the perceived cost. The attractive pricing brought it right back up to the forefront. It was a really good thing to do. It has gotten people psyched about skiing and snowboarding," said Joan Christensen, Winter Park spokeswoman.

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