The number of reservations made in August for resort arrivals from August through January was up 2.1% versus the same month a year ago, according to the Denver-based Mountain Travel Research Program.

“There were noticeable increases for September (28%), November (26%), and December (six%) and while actual numbers are small, is the first indicator that consumers may be returning to mountain vacations,” according to MTRiP.

The increase is in sharp contrast to recent trends for short-term bookings. Last-minute bookings, which were strong in July, were noticeably absent in August, with in-month/for-month bookings down 11% compared to August 2008.

During the reporting period, several economic indicators were trending upward, led by the Dow Jones Industrial Average which continued its steady climb since last February (from 7062.93 to 9496.28 on Aug. 31) with a 3.5% increase for August alone. The Consumer Confidence Index, up to 54.1 compared to 25 back in February, is almost at the same level as last August when it was 56.9.

“While national indicators continue to move in a direction that fosters cautious optimism for the coming season, these indicators point to a future that has yet to materialize in advanced bookings,” Garrison warned.

The report also noted that lodging rates continue to be significantly lower than a year ago, as mountain destinations engage in pricing incentives to attract visitors to their destinations. According to MTRiP, discounts range from four to 18% with deeper discounts offered during lower demand months. Overall rates for the next six months are down 13.8% from 2008-09.

“Last year's apples were more positive than this year's oranges and that makes this year's data look more negative, especially considering that 07-08 was record breaking for most mountain resorts,” explained Ralf Garrison, president of MTRiP and author of the report.. “But once we get past this 'crash anniversary,' last year's recessed market conditions will be more comparable to this year, and the resulting statistics more valid as a year-over-year indicator — the first real “apples to apples” look at the upcoming season.”

Indeed, August marked the one year anniversary of the economic meltdown that impacted nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. A comparison of this yea's data to last year at this time has created an 'apples to oranges' comparison that makes meaningful analysis somewhat challenging as the travel industry adjusts, like the rest of the economy to a 'new normal.'

“Most economic and statistical tools, including those used by MTRIP, compare the current year to last year and then calculate the percentage change between the two,” explained Garrison. “Last August, consumers were unaffected by the financial crisis and were shopping and spending in historically normal patterns but this year, shopping and spending patterns have changed, particularly on discretionary purchases such as leisure travel including mountain resorts.”

Business in August at the 216 property management companies surveyed by MTRiP in 15 mountain destination communities across Colorado, Utah, California, and British Columbia continued the pattern of recent months with low volume and less strength than last year, with August occupancy down 21% compared with August 2008 and down 13.2% from July 2009. Lodging rates were down 12.6% compared to August 2008 and 11.1% from July. Overall, summer business (May to October) continued to show significant declines from last summer.