Snow, cheap travel luring visitors to Tahoe |

Snow, cheap travel luring visitors to Tahoe

Sara Thompson And Nick Cruit
Nevada Appeal News Service

Holiday travel is expected to be down 2 percent in California this season, but enough people will be traveling to result in clogged roads and packed airports, a travel organization said.

More than 8.6 million Californians will travel 50 miles or more from their homes to celebrate the end-of-year holidays, according to a forecast by AAA Northern California.

“The significant reduction in the cost of gasoline has been insufficient to offset concerns over unemployment, job security and loss of disposable income,” said AAA spokeswoman Cynthia Harris. “But despite these fears, many will still be venturing out of town, and we can expect packed airplanes and congested highways.”

The average price for regular-grade gasoline in California is $1.80 per gallon ” down $1.46 from a year ago, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Lower prices appear to be attracting hesitant travelers who recently saw a decrease in travel-related costs, according to the Mountain Travel Monitor Report recently released by the Mountain Travel Research Program.

Short-term reservations are strong, and were particularly solid in late November, when snow and last-minute deals sparked an increase in visitors, the report said.

Local resorts seem to be right in step with data from Travel Monitor ” which surveys 216 property management companies in 15 mountain resorts in the western United States and Canada ” as the number of recent reservations has increased with the recent significant snow accumulations.

The drop in gas prices has been good news for skiers and riders driving from the Bay Area and Sacramento this holiday season.

Fewer travelers are flying. Of the 63.9 million Americans expected to travel 50 miles or more for the Christmas holiday, 82 percent will drive, and 13 percent will fly ” an 8.5 percent decline from last year, according to AAA.

The total number of passengers flying in and out of Reno decreased 10.5 percent this year, according to the airport summary.

But the South Tahoe Express airport shuttle’s numbers are the same as last year, said Mike Abercrombie, general manager with operator Amador Stage Lines.

Reservations for the shuttle started to increase with the snowfall, Abercrombie said, and buses have been added to accommodate the skiers.

“It’s good news for the casinos, resorts and business (on the South Shore),” Abercrombie said.

Lodging businesses are seeing an increase in bookings.

Most of the reservations for the South Shore came shortly after the snow, said Tom Davis, Horizon Resort Casino marketing director. The destination market is looking strong for both fly-in and drive-in visitors, he added.

Horizon Casino Resort and MontBleu Resort Casino and Spa are almost 100 percent booked, Davis said.

Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe are almost filled, too, said John Packer, director of entertainment and public relations for Harrah’s and Harveys at Lake Tahoe.

So far the holiday and winter season looks good because lower gas prices allow skiers to drive up from the Bay Area, Packer said.

“The word is out about the snow,” Packer said.

Part of the influx of reservations could be attributed to the good deals travelers receive on last-minute airline bookings, Davis said.

The trend for many travelers is booking trips on shorter and shorter notice, said Carol Chaplin, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority executive director. When snow is a variable, people tend to book on shorter notice, she added.

Northstar-at-Tahoe has seen its reservation volume double with the snowfall, according to spokeswoman Jessica VanPernis; however, lodging reservations before the snowfall were up compared to this time last year.

“Our spike in calls, inquiries, pass sales and reservations has been nothing short of impressive,” said John Monson, marketing director for Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. “We went from fielding one to two phone calls a day for our 27-room lodge to at least 15 to 20 once the snow started to fly.”

“We’re up 40 percent in the last week,” said Bill O’Connor, reservations agent for the Resort at Squaw Creek.

Squaw Creek is about 80 percent full for Christmas reservations at this time, which is less than previous years when, it had sold out reservations for the Christmas and New Year holidays, O’Connor said.

Sugar Bowl is “more or less all booked up,” said Monson.

But despite the spikes in sales and reservations, ski resorts are not out of the woods yet.

“At this point, this season is unlike any other in memory,” said Ralf Garrison, Mountain Travel Symposium founder and author of the report. “The final results for this season will depend on several key factors including the economy, amount of snowfall, and the aggressiveness of promotional efforts and programs,” he added.

Only time will tell what the economic downturn has in store for the industry.

“Resorts and lodging properties need to remember that it ain’t over till it’s over,” cautioned Garrison. “Businesses that want to weather these turbulent times need to remain up-to-date on changing economic variables and then be flexible in finding ways to take care of their loyal guests,” he added.