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Ski resorts, visitors happily along for the ride as tubing finds its niche

GILFORD, N.H. -- One recent weekday afternoon, Kadriye Ayazi and Ufuk Arman, natives of Turkey now living in Massachusetts, spent several hours snow tubing down a mountain at the Gunstock ski area here.

"It's scarier than I thought it would be," said Ayazi, a student at Salem State College. "After the first time, I thought I would not do it again.

"But I did," she added, smiling.

"It's kids' stuff," Arman said. "But I like it."

On an adjacent run, the Walker family of Bethany, Conn., climbed onto a row of tubes, grabbed ahold of one another, and zoomed, chainlike, down the slope.

"It's a nice break from skiing," said Brian Walker, who was there with his wife and two sons.

Operators of ski resorts all over New England could say the same thing about snow tubing.

It's only been about a dozen years since the first snow tube park in America opened in Amesbury, but since that time tubing has come to occupy an important niche in the regional ski industry.

"It's definitely become a huge part of the business," said Karl Stone of Ski New Hampshire, a statewide industry promotional group. Last year, New Hampshire played host to 2 million skier visits, she said, "and tubing was about 5 percent of that."

So far this has been a tough season for New England ski resorts.

"I don't think that snow has been the problem," said Kathe Dillman, owner of a consulting firm in Vermont. "We've all got great snow. There was record-breaking snow in some places in December. But the cold temperatures have certainly hurt."

People won't go out when it's as bitterly cold as it's been for much of the winter, said Stone of Ski New Hampshire.

But if the weather during the upcoming February school vacation week cooperates, the season could be salvaged. "Our business is so heavily reliant on those holiday periods," he said. "If we have a good February, we'll have a good season."

At the largest resorts, such as Vermont's Killington and Smugglers' Notch, tubing is just one of numerous amenities added in recent years to augment the range of wintertime activities available.

"No one comes here for the tubing," said Barbara Thomke of Smugglers' Notch. "It rounds out a list of the things that we offer."

But at some resorts, tubing is bringing new customers and money.

"For some smaller community ski areas, tubing has actually stimulated business," said Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association.

In 2000-2001, the ski industry's best season ever, tubing visits at Gunstock accounted for about 17 percent of revenue. At Tenney Mountain in Plymouth, N.H., the tubing park represents as much as 10 percent of annual revenue, according to general manager Dan Egan.

"And we've seen an incremental increase in business at our bar, restaurant, and pro shop," Egan said. "Tubing is a segment we continue to see grow."

The Granite State's largest tubing operation, at Cranmore Mountain, typically generates almost 10 percent of the resort's weekend dollars, said public relations director Kathy Bennett.

When tubing first came on the scene, some industry observers thought it would create new skiers.

"We thought that it would get people to enjoy the mountain and once they do that, they'd want to try skiing," said Debbi Irwin of Gunstock. "It didn't quite cross over to the extent that we'd hope, but it's absolutely reached all our expectations. They continue to come back and tube."

The industry discovered that people who are not drawn to the athletic challenge of skiing or snowboarding could still be attracted to a high-thrill, low-skill activity like tubing.

"Tubing has allowed people who aren't skiers to come up and enjoy the alpine setting with all the amenities and have fun outside," said Irwin. "You don't have to have any experience or equipment. There's a tow rope that pulls you up the hill, and you slide back down."

Tubing got its start at specially built parks close to where large groups of people live, like the Amesbury Sports Park. The park, which was built in 1992, was the idea of former Boston Bruin Brad Park, according to Ted Dipple, one of the current owners. Located off Interstate 495, it draws people from Manchester, N.H., southern Maine, and Boston.

The idea caught on quickly with ski-area operators because of its low cost -- for the operators as well as for the customers.

A full day of skiing can cost as much as $50 for an adult, but most tubing operations charge between $15 and $20 for a two-hour session, which seems to be the time limit most people enjoy.

Resort owners "have snowmaking areas . . . and they have the staff so they can maintain it for a relatively low cost," said Sweetser of Ski Maine.

Several regional resort managers said they converted old beginners' slopes into tubing operations. Nashoba Valley in Westford was even able to make use of old lighting equipment for its new tubing runs.

"It's the only part of our operations that's open nights until 9," said Cranmore's Bennett. "And it's been successful enough that we've expanded it to be open extra hours during New Hampshire school vacation week."

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