SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah ski resorts recorded a 10-year high for visitors this past season, likely fueled by good early-winter snow and buzz created by Vail Resort's merging of two ski areas into one mega resort.
The nearly 4.5 million skier visits in the 2015-16 season surpassed the previous high of 4.2 million in 2007-08, Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty said Thursday at a news conference. The total also marked a 13 percent increase from the previous season, which was the second-lowest in the last decade.
Utah ski officials opened the season hoping the "bigger is better" strategy would lure more skiers and snowboarders to all their resorts. With most resorts near each other east of Salt Lake City, skiers and snowboarders regularly try several different ski areas on one trip, Rafferty said.
The industry association doesn't release skier visit numbers for individual resorts, but Rafferty said nearly half of them set records.
"The Park City effect was in full effect," Rafferty said. "The additions they made benefited all the resorts."
Utah's big season came amid a banner year for the region. Skier and snowboarder visits were up 8 percent from last season, in the Rocky Mountain region that includes Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Idaho, according to the National Ski Area Association.
Colorado is set to announce its final numbers next week — two resorts are still open — but visits were up nearly 4 percent through February compared with the previous year, according to Colorado Ski County USA, the state's industry association.
Snowfall in Utah was very good, Rafferty said, but far from record-setting. He attributes the increase in skier visits mainly to attention that came from about $100 million worth of improvements made at Utah ski areas.
The highlight of the investments was the opening of the merged Park City Mountain Resort, which includes the ski area formerly known as the Canyons Resort. Vail spent $50 million to build an eight-person gondola connecting the resorts, upgrade other lifts and build a new restaurant.
Emily Summers, spokeswoman for Deer Valley Resort, said out-of-state visitors are learning that they should take advantage of Utah's variety.
"If you come to a vacation in Utah, you're doing yourself a disservice if you ski all six days at one resort," Summers said. "Go and try another resort for one day. We all do it. Every local will tell you that tip."
The flurry of upgrades at Utah resorts was the largest package of improvements since the late 1990s when the facilities geared up for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
At Snowbird, a two-story restaurant and lodge with large glass windows offering spectacular views from atop Hidden Peak highlighted $35 million in upgrades.
Upgrades at Solitude Mountain Resort include a high-speed quad lift and a new run. At Deer Valley, $5 million was spent for behind-the-scenes improvements that include better snowmaking and a remodeled restaurant.
The positive ski industry figures were released a week after a report from the University of Utah showed tourism spending in the state has hit a new high of nearly $8 billion, driven in part by record visitation to the state's five national parks.
Rafferty said Utah's ski industry contributes about $1.3 billion to yearly tourism spending. But he added this past season probably was closer to $1.5 billion thanks to the record visits.
Skiers who come to Utah spend an average of $235 per day, per person, he said.