October 19, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

The numbers game - part 1 

Skier numbers have dramatically decreased in the past decade but the snowsports industry would have you believe otherwise

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

The North American ski and snowboard industry is thriving, according to statistics from industry groups in Canada and the United States.

But an in-depth look at the numbers doesn't necessarily reflect that point of view.

Skier/rider visits have remained relatively flat for the past decade, while other indicators show the actual number of skiers has decreased – by 53 per cent in Canada and 35 per cent in the U.S. – during the same period.

Snowboarder numbers, meanwhile, are not as clear. Overall numbers of boarders have increased in both Canada and the U.S. but, in other cases, have actually shown decreases similar to skier numbers.

"It's hard to tell," says Ed Pitoniak, a former editor-in-chief of SKI magazine who is now Intrawest's vice president of resort operations. "The data is just not good enough."

Statistics from last year's ski and snowboard seasons north and south of the border are a case in point.

Canadian ski resorts recorded 17.7 million skier/rider visits last year – a two per cent increase over the previous season and the most since the early 1990s, according to figures from the Mississauga, Ont.-based Canadian Ski Council.

Skier/rider visits at all Canadian resorts averaged 21 million annually between 1990 and 1993.

According to the CSC, numbers in the Great White North were buoyed by last year's heavy snowfalls in Eastern Canada.

Resorts in Ontario and Quebec each saw 20 per cent increases in skier/rider visits while ski areas in Atlantic Canada experienced increases ranging from 25 to 31 per cent.

But skier/rider visits to British Columbia and Alberta – where the bulk of Canada's destination ski resorts are located – dropped by 12 and 25 per cent respectively due to a lack of snow.

B.C. resorts only saw 4.9 million skier/rider visits last year, compared to 5.6 million the previous season, while Alberta ski areas logged 1.9 million visits compared to 2.6 million in 1999-00.

Heli- and cat-skiing operations based in Western Canada also experienced a five per cent decline in skier/rider visits.

Still, Whistler-Blackcomb recorded more than 2 million skier/rider visits for the second consecutive year, after setting a resort record of 2.18 million during the winter of 1999-2000.

According to CSC figures, the majority of Canada's skiers and snowboarders live in Eastern Canada.

Fifty-nine per cent of the nation's skiers and 58 per cent of snowboarders live in Ontario and Quebec, while 31 per cent of skiers and 29 per cent of boarders live in B.C. and Alberta.

But overall skier and snowboarder numbers fell last year despite growth in skier/rider visits.

According to the CSC, 3.6 million Canadians took to the slopes last year – a 15 per cent drop from the previous season.

Skier/rider numbers fluctuated between 4.7 million and 4.9 million in Canada during the mid-90s and have steadily decreased every year since.

But those numbers vary quite drastically from another indicator – the number of active skiers and snowboarders.

The CSC defines an active skier or snowboarder as someone who skis or rides more than four times per month.

Only 641,000 Canadians were active skiers and 354,000 were active snowboarders last year, down from the previous season's respective totals of 738,000 and 412,000. There were more 2.1 million active skiers in 1988.

The decrease in active skier numbers is, according to the CSC, partly due to skiers who have switched to snowboarding.

But the combined totals of active skiers and boarders (995,000 last year) shows a 53 per cent decrease since 1988.

Meanwhile, statistics from south of the border show a picture of the ski and snowboard industry that is just as unclear.

U.S. ski resorts saw 57.3 million skier/rider visits last season, a new national record, according to the Loveland, Colo.-based National Ski Areas Association.

The previous record of 54.6 million skier/rider visits was set during the winter of 1993-94. Skier/rider visits in the U.S. have hovered around the 53-million mark for the past decade.

According to the NSAA, strong early-season snowfall in all parts of the U.S. was a major contributing factor, especially in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest regions where snowfall totals ranged from 61 to 78 per cent above normal.

The Midwest region – there is skiing in the Midwest – had its best season in 20 years, logging 7.5 million skier/rider visits. (The flat U.S. Midwest saw 35 per cent more skier/rider visits than mountainous B.C. did last year.)

And despite experiencing average snowfall, the Rocky Mountain area – which includes the majority of U.S. ski resorts in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – recorded its best season ever with 19.3 million skier/rider visits.

Whistler-Blackcomb's arch-rival, Colorado's Vail, led the way in the U.S. with 1.65 million skier/rider visits.

Vail Resorts' three other areas – Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone – accounted for another 3.3 million visits.

Intrawest-owned Copper Mountain, also located in Colorado, almost reached the one-million mark with 993,000 visits.

"Thanks to the increased snowfall and the enthusiasm of our guests, we're thrilled (with) such a successful season," says NSAA president Michael Berry.

But that enthusiasm might be a bit short-sighted as U.S. skier numbers have steadily declined in the past decade.

According to NSAA figures, 7.4 million skiers hit the slopes during the 1999-2000 season in the U.S., a 35 per cent decrease from 11.4 million in 1990.

Frequent skiers (those who ski more than 20 days per season, according to the NSAA) make up 15 per cent of the 7.4 million total, while the number of infrequent skiers (those who ski between two and four days per season) add up to 48 per cent.

Occasional skiers (those who ski between five and 19 days) make up the remaining 37 per cent.

Interestingly enough, snowboarder numbers in the U.S. seem to have improved in that same time period – 4.3 million snowboarders visited U.S. resorts in 1999-00, up from 1.5 million in 1990.

According to NSAA figures, 35 per cent of boarders ride frequently (more than 10 days), while 65 per cent ride occasionally (from two to nine days.)

But others involved in the snowsport industry say skier/rider visits or skier/rider numbers are not the most accurate way to measure growth in the industry.

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