Get 'em when they're young 

Ski industry gears up to create life-long converts to the slopes

Judging by the local scene, North America’s ski resort industry seems to be enjoying a boom period. Snowboarding and innovations in ski technology have revived interest in the sports and created new heroes. A new mountain culture has spawned new magazines, snowboarder fashions and crowd-drawing pursuits such as freeskiing and boardercross. The impression is of a long-established industry riding a wave of excitement that’s rolling over the mountains.

However, the truth somewhat belies the image. According to the Canadian Ski Council (CSC), real skier numbers in North America (i.e. the total number of people visiting resorts to go skiing or snowboarding each year) have remained fairly flat over the past 20 years, especially in the United States. The CSC says annual skier visits in the U.S. have remained around the 50 to 52 million mark, with higher numbers being recorded in big snow years. Canada, in comparison, has stayed around 16 million for much of the past decade, with numbers climbing to 17 million over the past two seasons. However, CSC president Colin Chedore says Canada has seen considerable growth in its western ski resorts such as Whistler, due to a rising influx of overseas visitors.

"In the 1994/95 season 4.6 million skier visits were recorded in British Columbia and by the 99/2000 season it had increased to 5.6 million – that’s quite a jump." But Chedore says this increase has been offset by consistent poor snow seasons in the east, with 2000/2001 being the exception.

"This winter we could be looking at record skier visits in Canada’s eastern resorts, possibly up as high as 25 per cent," Chedore says.

Despite increases in some areas, the overall picture is one of very little growth – especially when you take general population increases into account. According to the US Census Bureau, the population in the United States rose from 248.8 million to 272.4 million between 1990 and 1998. And Statistics Canada says the population here grew from 24.8 million to 29.7 million between 1981 and 1996. Statistics Canada estimates the current Canadian population to be 32.2 million.

Put these figures against the skier statistics and it casts the ski industry into a state of negative growth, with a lower percentage of the population hitting the slopes in North America than did 10 years ago. The Print Measurement Bureau has backed this trend, reporting that there has been no growth in the number of Canadians who ski or snowboard.

So how did this disparity between image and reality come about? The images are largely the work of the most successful resorts themselves. Take Whistler for example. From the winter of 1985-86 to 1999-00 the number of skier visits increased every year but one, with annual growth averaging 5.27 per cent between 1990 and 1999. Shrewd marketing and steady expansion has ensured Whistler has remained at the top of the international resort totem pole, and the draw card is working. Consistent good snow years, compared to key competitors in Colorado, has also helped.

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