The high-altitude and glitzy Rocky Mountain resorts of Colorado may be Whistler’s key competition in the scramble for destination skiers but they have got off to a dismal start this season. Scant snow has added to millennium woes and, even if the snow does come, Colorado tourism officials feel it will be a challenge to dig themselves out of the hole created by poor early-season perceptions. As Aspen Skiing Company chief operating officer John Norton said in an Aspen Times report: "You want to start with a bang." He said the holiday period is so important that any drop in sales can dictate the entire season. "I think it’s going to be as quiet around here as we’ve seen in years," he told The Times. Colorado is still trying to shake off the negative effect of poor snow conditions last season. Even when the snow did come last winter, after New Year’s, word had spread and the perception of poor snow conditions persisted. The result was an 8.2 per cent drop in skier visits. The area saw the largest annual decline in skier visits since the 1980/81 season. During the same period Whistler-Blackcomb saw a record-breaking 2.14 million skiers, ranking it among the top three resorts in the world after La Plagne in the French Alps — which does between 2.2 and 2.5 million skier visits annually — and Naeba in the Japanese Alps which handles over 2 million skiers. Preliminary occupancy reports compiled by the Snowmass Village Resort Association aren’t helping the mood in Colorado either. As of Dec. 17 Snowmass predicted a 47 per cent occupancy level for the week of Dec. 18-24. The three-year average for the week is 69 per cent. For Dec. 25-31 bookings indicated a 61 per cent rate was expected, compared to the three-year average of 90 per cent. And a 42 per cent rate was expected for the period Jan. 1-7, compared to a 75 per cent three-year average. A report from the Aspen Chamber Resort Association showed reservations to early December would produce an occupancy level around 50 per cent for the week Dec. 18-25. Skico president Pat O’Donnell was holding out hope that savvy travellers would still take advantage of reduced prices and lower minimum stay requirements, but he said his optimism was fading. "It’s going to be a marketing challenge when the snow finally does fall," he said. Whistler has also had to scale back the minimum nights stay over the peak millennium period and prices have softened considerably but there are no comparable occupancy statistics available. Tourism Whistler’s media relations co-ordinator Laura Street said the organization doesn’t project occupancy levels based on bookings. She said the occupancy levels are tabulated after month’s end. "We do some surveys with the hotels and we are able to produce a fairly detailed report. In January we will have the results for December." Street said it is difficult for Tourism Whistler to get an accurate read on expected occupancy levels for the peak period because they only receive blocks of inventory from the resort properties. "So even if the blocks are running low for a particular property, it doesn’t mean it is sold out. Our numbers are a little askew because we don’t have all the inventory."