It certainly isn’t obvious when you arrive at a ski resort in the West, but nearly all are located primarily on publicly owned lands. It is, to use the U.S. Forest Service’s pet phrase, a "partnership." The federal government provides most of the land; the ski area operators run the lifts and cafeterias.
In theory, this partnership benefits the general public. In practice, many ski areas have been akin to country clubs. The resorts cater to the "swells," meaning most skiers are as white as the snow they ski on.
But if ski areas hope to continue growing, this rich vanilla ice cream needs a new flavor. Population demographics are shifting rapidly. To justify biting off more chunks of public lands in bigger-means-better expansions, ski areas must commit to truly catering to the general public and not just to the well-heeled among the fixed-heeled. Business as usual cannot be justified.
It’s not that racial and ethnic bigotry lace the ski world. In several decades around ski resorts, I heard very few slurs. Even so, darker faces were so rare as to provoke double-takes. During the last ski season, minorities constituted 13 percent of skiers and snowboarders in the United States but 32 percent of the population. The gulf is even greater at the high-end destination resorts of the West.
Money is one major reason. Because minorities, with the exception of Asian-Americans, earn significantly less than whites, ski areas naturally attract whites. Even when lift tickets are relatively cheap, food, transportation and other expenses add up. Anecdotally, the threshold to skiing would seem to be a household income of $50,000, although the per capita annual income of skiers at some resorts in the West is above $100,000.
More important is the cultural divide, one compounded by the innate difficulty of learning to ski. The learning curve is already so high that of every three people who try skiing, only two stick with it. This is not bowling. Suddenly gaining feet that are five, six, or seven feet long is a startling experience, but the real weirdness comes with the new sensation of sliding downhill. What to an experienced skier looks like a hill in Kansas, seems, from the perspective of a beginner, more like the slope of the Grand Tetons.
Add the experience of being the only Latino or the only African-American, and you can imagine how intimidating skiing could be. Imagine being Caucasian and going to a hip-hop nightclub of black people to try open-microphone night.
But demographics are shifting rapidly. Unlike Baby Boomers or even Gen X, the new generation of about 22 and younger comes in decidedly more shades of color. If the ski industry hopes to hang onto the coattails of Echo Boom Generation, it must extend a hand to groups it is unfamiliar with.
This is being done most easily with Asian-Americans, whose higher education levels correlate with higher income, which is what ski areas care most about. California’s Northstar, for example, which hosts special events centered on the Chinese New Year, has been able to convert younger Asian-Americans from the Bay Area into regular snowboarding visitors.
Near Los Angeles, a small ski area called Mountain High is doing great business, catering to a rainbow coalition of hip-hop snowboarders and skiers. Mountain High’s marketing efforts begin on the beaches, where their patrons spend summers.
Even at the swankest resorts of the Rocky Mountains, ski areas are extending invitations to Latinos and other groups. Vail Resorts Inc., for example, this year is giving out 2,000 lift ticket and ski-rental instruction packages designed to introduce minorities to snow sliding at the company’s four Colorado ski areas. Meanwhile, ski area operators are talking about how to get more faces of color in the ski industry’s front lines, not just in the kitchens.
Whites are likely to remain overwhelmingly dominant on the slopes of Aspen, Bachelor and Park City and other Western destination resorts for a long time yet. Big bucks remain the ticket of admission for these full-fledged vacation experiences, and that means mostly white baby boomers. Hispanics last winter accounted for just 3 percent of skier visits, but nearly 14 percent of the population.
Even so, changes are on the way. This winter, Tiger Woods bought a lot in Jackson, Wyo. Can you imagine what will happen when ski racing gets its own Tiger Woods or, even more significantly, somebody by the name of Rodriguez or Trujillo?
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He lives and writes in the Denver area of Colorado.
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