Resorts drop in popularity

Vail and Aspen, long the double diamonds of skiing in North America, have dropped to fourth and fifth in a skier survey.

The resorts' high cost was a major factor, according to a poll of avid skiers, who rated the resorts for Ski Magazine.

''You have to sell a kidney to afford to ski here,'' one reader said of Vail.

It's especially bad news for Vail. Skier visits declined 16 percent last year, largely because of poor snowfall. The cheap Canadian dollar also lured skiers across the border to Whistler, B.C., the No. 1-ranked resort in the survey.

The resort also lost several popular facilities, including the Two Elks restaurant, to an arson fire set by eco-terrorists opposed to its expansion. Cheap ski passes at neighboring Colorado resorts lowered its ski and boarder count as well.

The magazine's readers rated Whistler-Blackcomb tops, followed by Sun Valley, Idaho, and Deer Valley, Utah.

Aspen dropped from third to fifth. Its sister resort, Snowmass, was sixth, followed by Beaver Creek, owned by Vail Resorts.

Andy Bigford, editor-in-chief of SkiMagazine, said Vail shouldn't worry too much.

''I know Vail is feeling like everything that could go wrong has, but I would just say hang in there,'' Bigford said Monday, the day after his magazine's October issue hit the newsstands.

Greg Trinker, also an editor with Ski, said Aspen got high ratings for its difficult terrain.

''Aspen is expensive,'' he said. ''The mountain is cramped. The inhabitants are snobbish. And there may be no better place on the planet to take a ski vacation.''

''We're not going to overreact,'' said Vail Resorts spokesman Porter Wharton III.

John Norton, Aspen's CEO, declined comment.

''I think this year's results are not a matter of Vail slipping as much as they are a result of Whistler-Blackcomb having a dream season,'' he said. ''They had 700 inches of snow, 2 million skier visits, and an incredible boost because of the decline in Canadian currency.''

The survey was the result of questionnaires sent to 10,000 readers who ski an average of 26 times a year.

Readers ranked North American resorts in 16 categories, such as ''best snow,'' ''best challenge,'' and ''best lodging,'' and RRC Associates of Boulder tabulated the results.

Before dropping to No. 4, Vail had earned the magazine's top ranking for two years running and, in all, nine times out of the past 12 years.

Vail's value rating stayed near the bottom, at No. 66. The biggest complaints about Vail were its high cost and crowds.

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