CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Cooler temperatures will allow all five of West Virginia's ski resorts to be open Friday, giving the state's tourism industry an early boost after warmer weather delayed several openings last ski season.
The ski industry in West Virginia is heavily reliant on out-of-state visitors, with about 50 percent of its clientele coming from North Carolina, Virginia and the Washington area, according to the West Virginia Ski Areas Association.
The association reports that its resorts have an annual economic impact of more than $250 million and create 5,000 jobs as visitors dine, play and stay in the state. But that economic driver is dependent on the right weather conditions so that resorts can make snow. So far this year, the weather has been cooperating and early bookings have been strong.
Snowshoe Mountain and Oglebay opened in November and Canaan Valley opened last weekend. Timberline and Winterplace will keep their ski lifts open for the season starting Friday.
"I've been dealing with the industry since 1985. This year we actually had three resorts open during the Thanksgiving holiday period, and nobody can remember that ever happening before," said Joe Stevens, a spokesman for the West Virginia Ski Areas Association.
Typically, only one or two resorts open in time for the Thanksgiving holiday period, Stevens said. With temperatures at the resorts in the teens this week, more than 20,000 tons of snow were being produced in West Virginia each hour, which is enough snow to cover 20 football fields with a foot of snow.
"The weather for the most part continues to cooperate with our snowmaking efforts and that's critical for providing a good on-slope product for the holiday skiers," Terry Pfeiffer, president of Winterplace and the West Virginia Ski Areas Association, said in a statement. "For most of us, the holiday period is 35 percent of our yearly budget and visitors have come to depend on West Virginia resorts for excellent conditions during that time frame."
Last year, Timberline, Winterplace and Canaan Valley weren't able to open until late December. Still, West Virginia saw an increase in the number of skier visits last year compared with the previous year.
West Virginia has about 800,000 skier visits each season, and exceeded that figure last year by several thousand, Stevens said. That mirrored a national trend that saw later opening dates for many resorts but strong visitation over the Christmas holiday, on President's Day and throughout March, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
About 15 percent of West Virginia ski resort visitors come from Florida, and Stevens said they usually come over the Christmas holiday. Opening earlier allows skiers and snowboarders who live closer to come up whenever conditions are right.
"People look out their back door in Charleston or Huntington or Charlotte or Raleigh or Richmond or D.C. or any of the metro areas, and they see, if we've got half an inch here, I know the mountains are in good shape," Stevens said.
The ski and snowboard season in West Virginia usually goes through April.