Vail, Colo.: No Worries in Ski Country

Foreign tourists flush with cash are crowding the slopes.

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Median household income: $63,848
Unemployment rate: 3.4 percent
Median home price: $810,000

There's an old saying that the collective mood in Colorado's ski country rises and falls with the snowfall. But even a near-record 20 feet of snow so far this season can't explain the downright giddiness folks like Alden Thorndike are feeling these days.

"It's just amazing up here," the 38-year-old international reservations agent for Vail Resorts says of the run he and his cohorts are having selling ski packages to Europeans, Russians, and other foreign tourists taking advantage of the weak dollar. "Everyone's already surpassed their [sales] goals for the year."

Indeed, anyone looking for signs of a recession in Colorado's Rocky Mountains needn't bother asking the folks in ski country or most anywhere else west of the Continental Divide. Thanks to a combination of still-robust tourism and a full-blown boom in oil and gas production, unemployment along the Interstate 70 corridor that runs west to the Utah border hovers around 3 percent. Little wonder that home sales in the ski-and-oil-fueled counties on the state's Western Slope grew by about 8 percent last year to a record $9.9 billion, according to an analysis by Land Title Guarantee Co., while the median home price in the Vail area rose by 32 percent.

"Noise." The resulting sense of optimism stands in stark contrast to the mood in the eastern part of the state, where worries over everything from a surge in home foreclosures to the ongoing war in Iraq have ignited strong interest in the presidential election.

Not that people like Thorndike share that interest. "It's just background noise," he says of his decision to forgo Tuesday's caucuses. "I don't really know whose policies would affect my life one way or other, but I'm not worried about the U.S. economy. Not at all."

That isn't to say that everyone in ski country sees only the upside. "It's definitely not as frothy as it was 12 months ago," Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz says of cooling real estate and club membership sales. "I don't know if this correction is going to be long- or short-lived. But my experience is that things can rebound very quickly."

That's certainly a consideration for a group of prospective buyers from Canada ogling a model of the new Four Seasons hotel complex now under construction in Vail. Of course, their motivation has as much to do with the recent strength of the Canadian dollar, which has risen by nearly 20 percent in the past year alone.

"You can tell where people are from just by the questions they're asking," says director of sales Jeff Meier. "If they're from Canada, they want to know about the amenities and when it's going to be finished. But if they're from places like South Florida or California, they ask a lot of questions about where prices are headed because they want to make sure they're not buying at the top."

While the angst he hears is reasonable considering the state of things in such places, he says much of it has been fueled by media accounts "of the 'crisis' we're in," he says sarcastically. "There's just a lot of hype. You know, we're going through a cycle. It's going to be 12, maybe 18 months, and then it's all going to be forgotten."