x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ski trade taps Obama wish list

The US ski industry has joined car makers in putting forward a wish list for economic aid.

Cowboys pull skiers down Main Street in Steamboat Springs.
Cowboys pull skiers down Main Street in Steamboat Springs.

ASPEN, COLORADO // It is not just the airlines and the automakers lining up with their hands out. As Barack Obama, the president-elect, works on fixing the ailing US economy, the ski industry has also put forward its wish list. Their highest priority: an economic stimulus package that gets people taking holidays. They also hope Mr Obama's planned spending on the nation's infrastructure reaches the Rocky Mountain region, and they want to see comprehensive immigration reform and concrete efforts to fight global warming and protect the nation's forests. Their demands may sound frivolous in a time of widespread home foreclosures and rising unemployment, but the US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn) ski industry employs tens of thousands of people and keeps many local governments afloat. Similar wish lists have been put forward by beach regions in Florida, another state that depends on tourism. "Recreation is critical to our economy," said Jennifer Rudolf, a spokesman for the marketing and policy group Colorado Ski Country USA. Recently, board members from the Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST), which groups 28 towns in the Rocky Mountain west, gathered to prioritise the industry's top issues in the coming year. "Getting our economy going again was on top of the list," said Paul Strong, the organisation's executive director. Just like places in the US Midwest where whole towns are employed by the auto industry, most CAST economies are almost entirely dependent on skiing and other mountain tourism. Steamboat Springs, for example, gets more than 50 per cent of its tax revenue from sales tax, according to Mr Strong. So if tourism takes a dive during an extended recession, the town government there will struggle to fund basic services, such as public transport, schools and hospitals. "This is something we watch very closely," he said. Mr Obama has said he plans to invest billions in the nation's infrastructure to jumpstart the economy. Officials in ski areas said they hope some of that money will come their way. "Transportation is terribly important for us," said Rod Slifer, a former mayor of Vail. "Interstate [Highway] 70 is the spine that services the ski areas, but investment in smaller roads and tunnels through the mountains will also be a great benefit out here." The ski industry is also watching how the Obama administration handles immigration reform, after efforts by the Bush administration to fix the nation's broken system disintegrated in Congress last year. Ski towns and resorts employ large numbers of seasonal workers, many of them foreigners who come to the US on the H2B temporary employment visa. The ski industry got stung in 2008 by a change in federal immigration policy that put a cap on the number of individuals allowed to receive the H2B visa. In the past, returnees to a job would automatically receive a fresh H2B visa, but the new policy meant that nobody got this exemption. Many found reprieve when the economy turned south, hiring Americans who had been laid off. But ski resort officials said there needs to be a permanent solution to the issue. "This problem will return when the economy improves," Mr Strong said. What has the industry most concerned for the long term, however, is global warming. A study out this week by the University of Colorado at Boulder found that the snow pack on Aspen Mountain will retreat more than 200 metres up the slopes within the coming two decades and shorten the ski season by almost a week. The study calculates ski resorts in the Rockies may have to treble their snow-making capacity in the coming decades. "I'm hoping the new president takes the 30,000-foot view," Chris Diamond, the head of Steamboat Springs resort told the Denver Post. "We have got to fix this or we are all done." gpeters@thenational.ae