SAN FRANCISCO -- Tourism officials from Aspen and Snowmass, neighboring Colorado ski resorts under the ownership and management of the Aspen Skiing Co., are upbeat, and for good reason.

Autumn storms brought heavy snow, enabling the two ski areas to open earlier than expected, and bookings are surpassing last year's numbers.

On top of that, airlift to Aspen's Sandy Airport -- which is three miles from Aspen's slopes -- increased 13% for the season.

United added two more daily flights from Denver to Aspen and a United Express non-stop from San Francisco, the first from the gateway.

The San Francisco daily flight -- operated by Air Wisconsin with an 88-seat jet -- will run through April 6. The San Francisco Bay area is Aspen's fourth-ranked market, behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

"The early part of the season, we saw a 10% increase in winter vacations from San Francisco," said David Perry, senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co.

The flight also provides a one-stop connection from Sydney, Australia, a top international market for Aspen. United also operates nonstops to Aspen from Los Angeles, Phoenix, Minneapolis and Memphis.

Northwest is serving Aspen this winter with nonstops from Memphis and Minneapolis, and America West increased its schedule with two daily flights from Phoenix.

Perry said this is the most airline service at Aspen since the record-breaking 1997-98 ski season.

This season has improved on all fronts for Aspen and Snowmass - including early-season snowfall, which has been abundant. "Aspen always has been very profitable for airlines, and because this is such a bad year for airline profitability, we are benefiting from their shift to markets where they have a proven track record," he said.

Last year was a disappointing season for Aspen, with skier visits down 6% from the previous winter. But this season has improved on all fronts -- including early season snowfall, which has been abundant.

"Our midseason figures aren't in yet, but at the end of the Christmas vacation period, we were 20% ahead of last year," Perry said.

"We're seeing the late-booking trend continue," he added. "We started taking reservations for February bookings one to two weeks in advance.

"We've been very pleased overall," said Perry, a longtime ski executive who joined the Aspen Ski Co. last August after serving as president of Colorado Ski Country USA. Before that, he was vice president of marketing at Whistler/Blackcomb ski area in British Columbia.

Aspen hoteliers reported strong early bookings. Sharon Tinnes, sales and marketing director for Aspen Square, a condominium hotel in the middle of the Aspen ski village, said advance bookings were "well ahead of last year" and that the hotel is expecting higher occupancy this year "by at least 10%."

However, guests are booking shorter stays, she said.

Bob Bayless, sales and marketing director of two of Aspen's most luxurious properties, Sardy House and Hotel Lenado, said he foresees a "great year" that will be on par or even surpass the winter of 2000-2001.

Bayless said early bookings ran 16% ahead of last year. Room rates start at $325 at Hotel Lenado and $350 at Sardy House.

In other news from Aspen and Snowmass:

• Ground is expected to be broken in late summer on a pedestrian-based complex at Snowmass, a joint venture between the Aspen Skiing Co. and Intrawest Corp., the developer of Whistler and other village-style ski resorts in the U.S. and Canada.

The project includes a village with hotels, restaurants and shops and a reconfigured lift system with a new gondola to provide mountain access from the village. The first phase is expected to open in 2005.

• Aspen properties that have completed or begun renovations or additions: the Mountain Chalet, the Christmas Inn, the Christiana Aspen, the Little Red Ski Haus and L'Auberge d'Aspen.

• Hyatt broke ground last fall on the Hyatt Grand Aspen, a 51-room, fractional-ownership property. Hyatt expects construction to start in the spring and anticipates a spring 2005 opening.

• The section of the resorts' Web site for travel agents -- at www.aspensnowmass.com/travelpro -- has a new design that increases usability.

It provides information on commissionable products, including lift tickets, ski schools, lodging and equipment rentals. Packages and discounts are displayed and updated regularly.

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