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As winters warm, ski hills are making changes. But tourism projections remain up.

A snowmaking gun is trained on a ski slope in New Hampshire.
Dan Tuohy
A snowmaking gun is trained on a ski slope in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire officials say the number of people visiting over the winter is expected to jump this year, possibly above pre-pandemic levels.

The state’s Division of Travel and Tourism is estimating three million people will visit New Hampshire this winter, and spend about $1.5 billion.

Lori Harnois, the director of the Division of Travel and Tourism, said those projections are, in part, based on forecasting based on economic conditions.

“We’re seeing gas prices seeming to be stable, so that’s a positive thing,” she said. “The most recent data is showing that we’re experiencing a good economy right now.”

Harnois noted expectations of above-average snowfall due to El Niño as another factor driving high expectations for tourism, and the state has focused its marketing efforts on skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling (though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the Northeast has equal chances for above or below average precipitation this year).

But as winters in New England are warming faster than any other season, and faster than many other places in the country, cold-weather pastimes across the state are under threat.

And the ski hills that draw in tourists are trying to adapt.

Jessyca Keeler, the director of Ski New Hampshire, said she’s heard ski pass sales have been good, and early season snows have drawn interest. But addressing the way climate change is shifting ski conditions is an imperative, she said.

This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says New England’s winter is expected to be warmer than normal. Last year, mild temperatures also hampered winter recreation.

“There's no question that that warming trend is concerning to us. And it's something that we've been trying to figure out how best to deal with,” she said. “What I think is good for the ski industry in New England, and certainly New Hampshire, is that we have had experiences over the many years that we've been operating of dealing with warm winters.”

Keeler said ski areas have been investing in snowmaking systems, and have upgraded them constantly as the technology gets better.

Ahead of this season, Bretton Woods bought almost 40 new snowmaking guns, and Cannon Mountain has enhanced snowmaking on their trails, as other ski areas install the machinery on parts of their mountains that are opening for the first time.

The machinery to make snow has helped the industry get through winters, Keeler said, but it’s not perfect – people generally look to see if it's snowing outside to see if the time is right to visit a ski hill.

“We do still have people who identify as skiers, if you will, who recognize that the ski areas have installed a lot of snowmaking and that they're constantly doing that,” she said. “They know that even if they're not seeing snow in their backyards, that they can still head north, and have a great experience on snow.”

Keeler said some hills have also branched out into other activities, like zip lining and biking, in other seasons. That’s not necessarily new, but it is helping with warmer winter seasons.

“It’s definitely a way to hedge against a bad winter,” she said. “But it’s also a great way to keep people employed year-round.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.