Image: Skiing in Utah
Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP file
Skiers enjoy the slopes at Alta Ski Resort in Alta, Utah.
updated 11/6/2008 6:21:10 PM ET 2008-11-06T23:21:10

Mother Nature is smiling on Utah's tourism industry.

Chilly temperatures and a few early snowstorms are allowing ski resorts to open earlier than usual this season, with the first Utah opening Friday.

The early opening is a shot in the arm for Utah's economy at a time it desperately needs it. State lawmakers recently cut $272 million from the state budget and further cuts could be on the way in January amid a nationwide economic decline fueled by slumping home sales.

"I think it's always great for us to open early, but I think this year it's even more important just because of the economic climate and everything going on in the world right now," said Bob Bonar, president of Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, which is opening Friday. "We're not just happy for Snowbird, but for tourism in general."

Tourism is increasingly becoming the state's most important industry, raking in $6 billion a year, with skiers the most lucrative part of that.

Skiers spend 176 percent more than other tourists here, according to the Utah Office of Tourism. The number of skier visits is also steadily increasing, setting record numbers here each of the past five years.

For that trend to continue, an extended season will likely be necessary, said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the state's ski and snowboard industry.

"There are a lot of things that we can't control like the economy and weather, but Mother Nature is getting us off to a really nice start," he said. "Right now, everybody is just going berserk in getting ready to go skiing. Our phones are ringing and everybody's excited."

Snowbird's opening Friday marks the second-earliest opening in the resort's history. It also couldn't have come at a better time for the state tourism office, which began airing television commercials nationwide Thursday touting the state's quality of snow and Salt Lake City International Airport's proximity to ski resorts.

The Snowbird's earliest opening was Nov. 5, 2004.

"We're thrilled the two matched," said Leigh von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

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Utah's commercials are airing on Bravo, TLC, History, MSNBC and National Geographic channels, with targeted placement in the Los Angeles market.

The 30-second ads are lighthearted, featuring people dressed as snowflakes auditioning for a selective snow judge. Only the premium snowflakes are chosen to be Utah powder. Tourism officials hope the videos will go viral on social networking Web sites and YouTube.

Utah's main competitor in the winter sports industry is Colorado, which will have four resorts open this weekend. Utah's commercials highlight one advantage the state has over its competitor to the east — some resorts are as close as a 30-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City.

By comparison, many of Colorado's resorts require are about a two-hour drive from Denver International Airport.

Von der Esch says that having a metropolitan area close to ski resorts means tourists will have to spend less money on transportation here than in other states.

"People are looking for value when they travel. To be able to say you're going to save on renting a car because you can take a shuttle up if you want to. If you rent a car, great, you'll be able to use it without having to drive hours without getting to a ski resort of your choice. As soon as they step off the plane, they've got value," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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