NY ski numbers rise despite pandemic challenges

A snowboarder cruises down Whiteface Mountain. (Provided photo — ORDA)

It seems like a paradox, but it’s true. New York ski areas generally reported more skiers than usual this winter — in some cases many more — despite challenges such as state-imposed capacity restrictions meant to slow coronavirus spread.

This pandemic winter was good to the downhill ski areas New York state owns: Whiteface and Gore in the Adirondacks and Belleayre in the Catskills. All together, skier and snowboarder visits were up 14% over the previous winter (up to 580,000), and season pass sales were up 25%, according to officials with the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs these and other winter sports venues.

Belleayre really set the pace. Visitation at this mountain in Highmount, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Manhattan, soared by 28.12%, according to ORDA spokesperson Elise Ruocco. It was the highest attendance since ORDA took the mountain over from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in 2012, she added.

Whiteface Mountain, in Wilmington, saw visitation rise 10.65%, and Gore, in North Creek, jumped 9.83%, Ruocco said.

That popularity defied some serious challenges.

First was capacity restrictions. Back in the fall, the state required ski areas to reduce the maximum number of people they let in by 25% outdoors and 50% indoors. Those limits never changed all winter, Ruocco said. Furthermore, all visitors had to reserve ahead of time. Spontaneous Lake Placid visitors could no longer just show up at the Whiteface ticket counter and get skiing.

Second, the continued closure of the U.S.’s northern border (now in its 14th month) meant no Canadians, who normally come to the Adirondack ski areas especially.

Third, winter started late, which meant ski areas missed out on the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Whiteface and Gore normally open for the season sometime in November, but in 2020 they didn’t open until Dec. 5, and Belleayre didn’t open until Dec. 9, according to Ruocco. And while this season didn’t end as early as the pandemic forced it to last year, it didn’t have a longer-than-normal tail end, either. Whiteface and Gore closed April 10, Belleayre April 6.

“It was unclear in the beginning of the season how things would transpire, but with all of our safety protocols in place, we saw great success, not only visitation but in the safety of our staff and guests,” Ruocco said. “We were very pleased overall, across all of our mountains and Olympic venues.”

Scott Brandi, president of the SKI/NY trade group, told the Times Union of Albany that while many ski areas don’t like to share detailed numbers, New York’s 43 ski centers — which he said is the most of any state — would likely total abut 4 million skier-snowboarder visits this winter, up from 3.7 million the season before.

Why the increase, despite these challenges? Many people in New York’s ski industry have attributed it to New York skiers staying in New York rather than flying to western resorts or driving to Vermont, where visitor restrictions deterred out-of-staters. Vermont dropped those quarantine rules in April.

Both Ruocco and Bruce Monette III, brand ambassador at Titus Mountain Family Ski Center in Chasm Falls south of Malone, said they thought their venues benefited from Vermont’s limits.

Titus is just 18 miles south of the border and normally draws many Canadians.

“While we missed Canadians, we did see many more in-state visitors, first-time skiers or people that haven’t skied in many years getting back into the sport,” Monette told the Malone Telegram.

Weather was also a factor, he said. While there was less snowfall this winter than usual, he noted that there were no mid-winter thaws, so snow conditions stayed good.

“Overall, it was a wonderful season,” he said.