Winter tourism diversifying on Tahoe’s South Shore

The Lake Tahoe south shore skyline after a recent snowfall.

The Lake Tahoe south shore skyline after a recent snowfall.

For decades, skiing and gaming have dominated the winter tourism scene on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore, but with travelers hitting the slopes and slots less and climate change threatening snowfall, travel experts say that’s changing.

“Gaming and skiing have defined the destination for a long, long time,” said Carl Ribaudo, president of SMG Consulting, a tourism marketing firm with 25 years of experience in the industry. “But there’s been impacts within each of those areas. On the skiing side, we’ve been impacted by a fairly flat market in terms of skier-day growth, we’ve got changing demographics with millennials, and we’ve got climate change issues.”

U.S. ski areas saw an estimated 54.7 million skier and snowboarder visits during the 2016-17 season, up 3.7 percent from the previous season’s 52.8 million total, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSSA).

“It’s been hovering between 50-55 million skier visits, according to [NSSA], so skiing is relatively flat, in fact, sometimes there is a decrease in the number of skier visits in the United States,” said Ralf Garrison, founder of DestiMetrics, a resort lodging analytics firm.

The baby boomers who grew the industry are skiing less, said Garrison, and millennials are not hitting the slopes nearly as much as the previous generations — a point previously reported on by the Tribune.

“We’re finding that the historical attractions are no longer as popular as they used to be, in fact the kinds of things that are growing that work as attractions are not the outdoor sports of old,” said Garrison.

“There’s a whole new generation of folks and interests and diversity — and that’s actually a good thing because we can’t expect the lift ticket to be the single attraction on which a community is dependent. That would be unfair, impractical and certainly wouldn’t work on a year-round basis nor would it work over the long term as climate change begins to be an increasing consideration.”

Though last year’s near record-breaking winter brought ample snow to the Sierra Nevada, a recent study found that the “snow line,” the elevation where rain turns to snow, is moving uphill — and the last 10 years saw the steepest decline in precipitation falling as snow of any decade in the last 70 years.

“There is a new visitor who isn’t necessarily the hardcore skier,” added Carol Chaplin, president and CEO of Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority. “I see families and people in Heavenly Village who are there to shop or enjoy a gondola ride, not ski.”

Ribaudo agrees, noting that skiing is becoming one of the amenities that falls under the umbrella of recreation on the South Shore, just as gaming is becoming a part of the area’s entertainment scene, not the majority of it.

“People are still skiing and boarding, but they are also hiking, mountain biking, and there’s more snow-playing, so it’s beginning to diversify within the recreation category,” said Ribaudo. “The same thing in entertainment. We now begin to look at gaming as an element of entertainment. We have concerts and events that are broadening the definition of entertainment.”

Ribaudo points to the success of Harveys’ summer concert series and the rapid growth of SnowGlobe Music Festival. The three-day festival has grown from 7,500 attendees in 2011 to 19,000 just five years later.

In Stateline, an increase in transient occupancy tax is raising funds to study the feasibility of an all-season events center next to MontBleu Casino. Representatives from the lodging and gaming industry have voiced support for the project, which could help bridge the slower shoulder seasons by bringing in tourists for concerts and other events.

Drinking and dining trends found in bigger cities also are beginning to make their way up the mountain. The South Shore is now home to six craft breweries with one more slated to open in the new year. Poke Rok, a joint serving the popular Hawaiian raw fish salad, just opened in The Chateau at the Village, and Tahoe Pourhouse, a tapas and wine bar, is opening its doors at The Crossing at Tahoe Valley this winter.

“So when you look at it from a destination competitiveness standpoint, we become increasingly more competitive the more we broaden the appeal of the destination,” said Ribaudo. “I think that’s absolutely critical for us to succeed.”


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