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A snowboarder rides down No Name, a black run under Lift 6, at Breckenridge Monday, Dec. 18, 2006. Photo by Christian Murdock/The Gazette

Despite unprecedented challenges, skiing and snowboarding proved popular across American resorts during the coronavirus pandemic.

National Ski Areas Association counted 59 million visits to 300-plus hills and mountains on the 2020-'21 season. The trade group said the total was fifth-best on the record list dating to 1979.

NSAA reported the same figure for the 2018-'19 season. The organization considered the most recent season "a strong recovery from the pandemic-shortened 2019-'20 season," when visitation was reported down about 14%.

Provided data show the season was the second-best ever logged in the Rocky Mountain region, which includes Colorado and five other states. Across all states, NSAA tallied 22.5 million visits last season, up 11.9% from the previous season cut short by COVID-19 closures. The latest total is down from the region's record-best 24.4 million visits in '18-'19, according to NSAA.

Colorado Ski Country USA, representing most of the state's ski areas not owned by Vail Resorts, has yet to release visitation numbers, as the group annually does.

In a quarterly report to investors in March, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz — overseeing the company's flagship resort in Colorado along with Breckenridge, Keystone and Beaver Creek among others — said visitation across North American destinations "was only down approximately 5%" from the same period the prior year." But net revenues had plunged 28%, with the most drastic cuts felt in the departments of dining, lessons, retail and rentals.

Similarly to Vail, Aspen Skiing Co. business largely depends on international travelers. That clientele stayed grounded in the winter.

The Aspen Times reported ski visits to the local slopes were fewer than 1.2 million last season, between a 3% and 4% dip from '19-'20. "It certainly wasn't our fifth-best season ever," company spokesman Jeff Hanle told the paper.

But Vail Resorts and Aspen Skiing Co. were encouraged by season pass sales. Katz told investors 20% more Epic Passes reached the hands of skiers and riders in fiscal 2021.

The growth matched a national trend. While ticket sales at windows declined amid restrictions, NSAA reported season pass holders accounted for 51% of the country's total visits, up from 45% the previous winter and spring.

The association noted a drastic change in weekday trips — accounting for 48% of all visits, a 27% boost from the prior season. NSAA cited remote work and school flexibility for the weekday surge.

The association added "small and medium-sized ski areas performed well this winter, with more guests choosing to stay close to home for ski trips, and increased local demand for outdoor recreation in general."

But NSAA counted a 30% decrease in lessons taught around the country. That was one part of operations hampered by public health guidelines, the association said.

"As a result, it is expected that revenues in these ancillary lines of business will be down in 2020-21," the report read. It said that data was still being analyzed.

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