“Instead of counting skier days, let’s figure out a way to measure skier happiness.”
By Bob Berwyn
Skier visits appear once again to be increasing this year in Colorado, which is generally perceived as a good thing. But since I’m not a big fan of conventional wisdom, I’d like to offer a somewhat contrarian take on the subject: Instead of counting skier days, let’s figure out a way to measure skier happiness.
I first spent some time thinking about this back in 2007 when Colorado was heading for a record season in terms of sheer skier numbers. As I scanned various news reports about the statistics, I noticed that there was an unquestioning tone in the media that more skiers is automatically better for everyone.
A Denver Post story on the numbers superficially appeared to be value-neutral — or objective, in journalistic terms — yet in the context of our culture, it’s clear that the high number of skier visits is generally considered to be a good thing, at least by anyone that matters. That’s probably not surprising, given our fixation with statistics and records, our insistence on measuring success in economic terms, not to mention our worship of the almighty dollar.
Our tendency to measure everything in terms of dollars and cents represents a real lack of creativity suggests a certain small-mindedness. Sure, it’s the simplest way, as it merely requires simple addition.
I started to wonder whether it’s even worth raising the possibility that we should be more concerned with the quality of the ski experience rather than with the economics associated with skier visits. Of course, a strong argument could be made that there is a link between the two; that people wouldn’t be flocking here in such great numbers if Colorado skiing weren’t the cat’s meow. I accept that correlation, and acknowledge that there are some very happy people living all around me in our fabulous mountain towns.
But I wonder how much their happiness depends on the fact that 3 million skiers visited Colorado in the past few months. It seems that the happiest people I know are the ones who actually benefit the least from the $210 that every one of those visitors supposedly spends while they’re here.
They are the people who live here for the sheer joy of waking up every morning to a panoramic vista of snow-covered mountains. They are the people who have been able to balance their lives, putting their families at least on equal footing with the never-ending chase for dollars, who have time to get out ride their bikes, snowboards, skis and kayaks, and frankly, most of them could care less whether the state’s ski areas surpass 13 million skier-day mark this year.
Most of them would be equally happy — maybe even happier — if there were a few less tourists crowding the roads, parking lots and trails, and if they didn’t have to work two jobs to be able to afford a place to live in our resort towns, where, even now, in a “recession,” real estate prices are still hyper-inflated, thanks to the scourge of high-priced second-home McMansions.
So where is all this money from the tourists going? It certainly hasn’t been used to ease congestion in the I-70 corridor, which carries a huge share of the skier traffic to and from the mountain resorts. It certainly hasn’t been used to improve the quality of life for the ground-level service workers who keep the resorts functioning. It hasn’t been used to address streamflow and water quality issues related to massive diversions needed to supply extensive snowmaking systems. Could it be that most of that money doesn’t even stay in the state, but flows out to shareholders of the big corporations that control most of the tourism business?
I’d like to suggest a new way to measure success in the Colorado ski industry, one that isn’t based simply how many people visit the state’s resorts, but on the number and the size of smiles among both visitors and locals. I’d like to see success measured by how many ski instructors and dishwashers can afford health insurance at the beginning of the season, by how many teachers, firefighters and nurses can afford a place to live that’s close to where they work. Call me crazy, but I’d suggest that we cap skier numbers until we’ve collectively addressed some of the critical infrastructure and social issues, including transportation, housing and water supply.