PARK CITY, Utah (AP) -- Strong business at the start of the season could lead Utah's ski resorts to top the record of nearly 3.3 million skier visits logged three years ago, an industry official said Wednesday.
That would represent an improvement for Utah's 13 resorts over the past two years, when the 2002 Winter Olympics, the war in Iraq, a declining national economy and last year's paltry snowfall combined to depress sales of lift tickets.
"We will have a record year this year. It's hard not to with the kind of snow we had," predicted Kip Pitou, president of the industry group Ski Utah.
Pitou, who collects confidential data from Utah's ski resorts, said he was projecting 3.4 million skier visits, up from the record 3,278,291 for the 2000-01 winter.
The figure for last year was 3,141,212.
"We need to be 4 million. We can easily handle that at our resorts," he said.
Estimating ski area business can be tricky at this time of year. Many of Utah's resorts will stay open for another two weeks and late-season leader Snowbird will remain open another two months.
Colorado leads the nation with about 11 million skier visits, about 60 percent of them from out of state. Utah's draws about 56 percent of its business from destination skiers, a category prized for spending more money than local skiers.
But Utah's resorts may have gotten too much of a good thing this winter. November and December brought regular storms, and heavy snow fell over the holidays, keeping away some skiers and closing the Cottonwood Canyons more often than usual.
Known for abundant snowfall, the Cottonwood Canyons just east of Salt Lake City are home to four of Utah's ski resorts, including Alta, which is projecting a "soft" season.
The problem: too much snow falling at the wrong times.
Heavy snowfall closed the canyon all day on Dec. 26, "a huge check-in day" for the resort, Alta spokeswoman Connie Marshall said.
On another four days, Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic was strictly limited by sheriff's deputies to four-wheel-drive vehicles. And two other days this winter the road stayed closed until 10:30 a.m. for avalanche control, she said.
Alta tends to draw more skiers in winters when snowfall isn't so heavy and "bluebird days" bring out the skiers, she said.
With more than half of its business from out-of-staters, Utah's resorts depend heavily on fickle local skiers.
"If you have no snow they don't ski. If you have great snow they don't ski" because only the hardiest venture out during storms or for deep powder, Pitou said.
Utah resorts added millions of dollars of infrastructure before the 2002 Winter Olympics and could accommodate a lot more skiers. But advertising and promotion is key and "we basically get nothing" from the Utah Legislature, he said.
Utah spends less than $1 million on tourism for the whole state. That's less than British Columbia's Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort spends promoting itself, he said.
To pick up the slack, Utah resorts placed 65 pages of national advertisements for this season -- three times more than they've done in other years.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)