Ski Towns Competing for Tourists

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Vail, CO September 3 (AP by Robert Weller)--Vail Resorts disdained deeply discounted, wildly popular buddy passes offered by Colorado resorts a year ago. But it isn't taking any chances this year.

After posting a 16.2 percent decline in ski traffic, which cost Vail its crown as the nation's busiest resort, company officials are offering deals like the buddy pass program.

The drop in business was blamed on a dearth of early season snowfall. But, Bill Jensen, chief executive operating officer for Vail Mountain, acknowledged, ``Vail is not immune'' to pressures from discounted prices.

Major resorts from Aspen to Winter Park have decided to offer the buddy passes again this year, creating a competition that analysts say has no match in the leisure industry, with the exception of airline fares.

With this year's discounted programs, a day's skiing will be as cheap as $10 or less at some resorts. Berthoud Pass, a small resort about 50 miles west of Denver, will charge less on days when there isn't any fresh snow.

Vail is offering 10-day and 20-day passes, with limited restrictions, for $269 and $499 respectively, or $26.90 and $24.95 per day.

Even Aspen, which once described itself as the Mercedes of ski resorts, is widely advertising discounted tickets.

Outside Colorado, resorts are generally holding the line on ticket prices, with season passes typically in the $1,000 mark in many premier areas.

``Every day I see something new,'' said Kip Pitou, executive director of Ski Utah. Denver area resorts ``seem to be eating each other up instead of going out to get the rest of the market.''

The so-called buddy passes were introduced amid much fanfare a year ago, when Winter Park, 60 miles west of Denver, reduced season passes to about $200 apiece if four were purchased together.

The price equaled season lift ticket costs in the early 1970s, before the advent of high-priced, high-speed lifts.

For the first time ever, Breckenridge last year edged out Vail, its sister resort, in skier days.

Jensen, who ran Breckenridge until being transferred to Vail a few weeks ago, noted Vail suffered not only from the price war, but from the publicity about October arson fires allegedly set by eco-terrorists, and from a weak Canadian dollar.

The World Ski Championships brought worldwide publicity but the specter of a resort clogged with ski racers and their entourages may have dissuaded skiers and boarders from coming, he said.

The late arrival of snow may have been the biggest turnoff.

``I think snow had a huge impact,'' Jensen said. ``If the snow returns to a more normal cycle ... I would expect an increase in skier visits on that basis alone.''

Copyright © 1999 The Associated Press

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