NEW YORK -- The 2003-2004 ski season is shaping up to be the best in three years, according to a number of tour operators and ski resorts.

Early and heavy snowfall across North America has helped create a "buzz," so skiers who hit the slopes for Christmas and New Year's are going to go home and rave about the experience, creating momentum for January through April, they believe.

"The snow you get in November and December is more important than the snow you get in January and February," said David Tanner, president of Rocky Mountain Vacations, Glenwood Springs, Colo. "Early snow generates excitement."

The past two seasons have been difficult for the ski industry because of 9/11, the poor economy and last winter's buildup to the Iraq war, which occurred right in the middle of the prime booking season.

"Now we're seeing renewed interest in ski packages and an uptick in our wholesale air ticketing," Tanner said.

Jody Straunch, president of Denver-based Lynx Ski Vacations, said, "We're seeing travel agents turning to us for wholesaler air pricing to get a net rate or a full commission" on packages.

She said she expects the "best season in three years" because of pent-up demand.

But tour operators said there is a definite price-consciousness among consumers, who are waiting to book closer to the departure date.

"People are waiting and waiting because they think they can get a better deal," said Guido Papa of SnowTours in Secaucus, N.J. "

At American Skiing Co., which operates seven ski resorts, advance bookings are up from 5% to 30% over the same period last season, depending on the ski area.

"We see a very strong holiday period, and indicators are good for a strong season as a whole," said Chip Carey, American Skiing's senior vice president of marketing.

Year-to-date revenue at Vail Resorts' central reservations are up 2% over last year, according to the company; air bookings to Vail are up 7%, compared with the same time last season.

To contact reporter Laura Del Rosso, send e-mail to [email protected].

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