The number of skier visits in the state will increase by an estimated 3 percent in the 2009-10 season to about 4.1 million, the president of industry group Ski Utah said Tuesday.
That would provide a boost to a struggling state economy increasingly dependent on tourism, and mark a turnaround from last year when the economic downturn hit.
Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah president, said recent signs of economic growth in the national economy should lead to more destination travelers vacationing in the state than last year, when skier visits declined by 6.5 percent from the record-setting previous year.
"Last season was a little different for everybody," Rafferty said. "The economic issues that we faced last year _ the timing couldn't have been worse."
The trouble started when most people normally book vacations and got worse as the season went on, he said.
Rafferty's comments come as most of Utah's 13 ski areas prepare to open within the next two weeks.
The lift lines started forming at Solitude Mountain Resort last week, the first to open. Solitude, like many other resorts, developed new season pass and lodging deals this year in an effort to increase visitation.
"If you're a skier or snowboarder, you're seeing the best deals that you've seen in a decade," Rafferty said.
Last year was the first since the 2001-02 season that the state's ski industry didn't experience any growth, mirroring a national trend that saw skier visits nationwide decline 5.5 percent from the record 60.5 million visits the season before.
Resorts near major metropolitan areas, particularly those on the East Coast, fared better than many destination resorts in the West last season because of an uptick in lift ticket and season pass sales bought by those who live within driving distance of ski areas.
"We hope that we're going to see some pent up demand for skiing for the West," Rafferty said. "There were a lot of people that stayed home, traditional skiers that maybe would have traveled out to Utah or Colorado that just said 'You know, we're going to stay in the car. We're going to ski somewhere in Vermont or Maine.'"
Early indications are that more people are willing to travel.
Rafferty said the Denver-based research group Mountain Travel Research Project has reported that lodging reservations in Colorado, Utah, California and British Columbia for January are up 17 percent from last year and 7 percent for February.
Ski Utah's Web site has also seen traffic increase 9 percent compared with the same period last year.
At Powder Mountain Resort, which doesn't advertise nationally, sales are strong and more interest is coming from outside Utah than ever before, said resort spokeswoman Carolyn Daniels.
"It appears that our season pass sales are up once again, and last year was our second-best year ever," she said. "A large portion of it is the destination skiers who are starting to discover our area."