Tourism Drops While Ski Areas Resort to Gimmicks

'Sno(w) joke, the white, fluffy stuff has all but missed New England this year - a letter from Boston

NEW England winters just aren't what they used to be. Forget about building a snowman in the backyard, skiing down mountain trails of packed powder, or watching a glorious Nor'easter transform the neighborhood into a white-covered winter wonderland.

Over the past few years here, it seems snow has just plain gone out of style. Consider this winter, for example. Boston-area climatologists are predicting it to be the second-mildest winter in more than 100 years.

Over the past three months, snowfall has been far below normal. In the Boston area, for example, only about 17 inches of snow has fallen - not even half the average of 41 inches, according to the National Weather Service at Boston's Logan International Airport.

Ski areas have probably suffered the most from the mild weather. Although many ski resorts have snowmaking equipment, business has not been good, say ski-industry officials. The biggest snowfall this year came in the middle of November, certainly not a sign of things to come, laments Tom Meyers, director of marketing for Vermont Ski Areas Association.

The turnout on the slopes this year has been so bad that some ski areas have resorted to advertising gimmicks. Sugarbush Resort in Waitsfield, Vt., gets the prize for its "Midwinter Madness" program. One day the resort offered to cut $10 from the lift ticket of every skier who could whistle the tune "Whistle While You Work." On another day, the same discount was given to every skier who wore a yellow ribbon on the slopes.

But it's not just ski areas that are affected by the mild winter season. Tourism in general has dropped off in New England. Although some of it may be due to the lack of snow, the Gulf war and a regional recession are also factors. According to Chris Jennings, director of the New Hampshire Office of Vacation Travel, more people are taking day trips instead of weekend excursions, thus spending less on restaurants and motels.

But back in Boston at the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, things aren't looking so bad. Mark Cain, the department's chief engineer for snow removal, says the mild weather has saved Massachusetts some money.

Last year, his department spent $23.4 million for snow and ice removal on state highways. This season the department may need to spend only about $15 million, he says.

Massachusetts cities and towns are delighted as well. Local budgets are already strapped because of a state budget shortfall and a regional recession. This year communities won't need to use up extra money to pay for snow removal costs, estimates Sheila Cheimets, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

But those in the private snowplowing business aren't so thrilled. Roy Richardson of North Reading, Mass., who owns four snow-plow trucks, says it's been a tough winter. Each year he is finding that he just can't rely on Mother Nature to help pay the bills.

These days, New Englanders can only reminisce about snow. Most like to remember the great blizzard of '78 which dumped a record 27.1 inches of snow in the Boston area.

But weather watchers hesitate to attribute the milder temperatures to the greenhouse effect.

The warmest winter on record was back in 1932-33, before anyone was even talking about any greenhouse, says Robert Lautzenheiser, semi-retired climatologist at the New England Climatic Service.

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