It's been five years since Mt. Bachelor reported above-average annual snowfall, according to the website On The Snow. Most climate change models predict that winters will be shorter and more unpredictable in the future, which has the potential to lead to a shorter, more unpredictable tourism season in Central Oregon.
Winter tourism is more dependent on weather forecast than summer travel is, and people will often try to confirm there will be good skiing weather.
- Courtesy Another Believer/Wikimedia
- The views are different riding down Pine Marten ski lift in the summer months.
"What you typically see in winter months versus summer months is the booking window for the summer might be two or three months in advance of that travel. In the winter, we see that booking windows shrink to a week or two out from the purpose of that travel," said Kevney Dugan, president and CEO of Visit Bend. "The booking window is much shorter. And I think that's due to people waiting to see what weather conditions are actually going to look like."
That means that the number of visitors fluctuates more dynamically in the cold months, with the exception of holidays where an uptick in visitors is all but guaranteed. Dugan said the biggest short-term drain on tourism isn't the lack of snow, but too much of it, making travel more dangerous.
"If those big snows happen going into Presidents' Day weekend or something like that, then you see (really sort of) negative impacts on travel," Dugan said.
Though heavy snow can be tough for winter-based businesses, it's not devastating, and winter tourism has remained strong (for the most part.)
"The correlation really is tied directly to travel so that the heavy snow impacting travel to the community is the one time we see (sort of) impact on travel in general. But with low snow years, what hasn't happened is you haven't seen Mt. Bachelor not be able to open or, they're still opening typically by Christmas, and they're still having as much of a season as they can have," Dugan said. "If it starts getting to the point where we're not having snow by that Christmas period, or we're seeing a much shorter season into the spring, that's when I think places like Mt. Bachelor or other winter recreation opportunities start to get concerned."
Dugan credits this to the many options available for tourists in Bend in comparison to other ski resort communities like Breckenridge or Aspen.
"It's just a bigger town, it's a bigger community and with that comes a lot more options than just being here to ski," he said. "I think we see a lot of our visitors doing that where they may come for a week, and they ski three or four days and sort of pick the best weather days. And then on those other days, they're off doing other things like the high desert dam or hiking Smith Rock or other activities in and around town."
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The worst effects of climate change are likely years away, and Dugan said winter tourism companies like Mt. Bachelor are adapting.
"The fact is climate change is happening, and we all have to understand that the length of winter and the amount of snow is going to change over time," Dugan said. "I think Mount Bachelor has been very progressive and forward thinking in developing more summer recreational opportunities, whether it's mountain biking, or zip lining or the new hiking trails that they're adding to the mountain. All those things, I think, are an indicator that they see potentially a shrinking winter period, which means reduced revenue from daily skiers."