SCOTLAND'S ski centres have had their "best ever" early start to a winter on the slopes. They have seen nearly 15,000 skiers and snowboarders on the piste over the New Year holiday weekend, with some of them having been open for business since early November.
With the cold snap set to continue throughout January and fresh falls of snow forecast, an industry that was in the doldrums only five years ago is set for another money-spinning season.
Last year, after the best season for winter sports in Scotland since 1996, a staggering total of almost 380,000 skier days were racked up across the five resorts as the season lasted until June at CairnGorm - that was double the number of ski days recorded in Scotland in 2009.
The extended season contributed an estimated 37.5 million to the Scottish economy with hotels, bars and restaurants benefiting from a welcome boom in the winter sports industry.
Colin Kirkwood, marketing executive at CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, said this year was looking even better.
"We are ahead of where we were at this point last year, mainly due to the good early start we had in November," he said. "We started skiing in the middle of November, which is pretty unusual for us. We had some very good snow then and some good numbers in during November and throughout December as well.
"Conditions now are hard and icy, but there is still good skiing over most of the mountain."
Stewart Davison, one of the directors at Glenshee, also welcomed the early start to the 2011 winter season.
He said: "It has been an excellent start to the year. We have been skiing since 21 November. I have been here 21 years and I can't remember a December like we've just had.
"The 30-day forecast is it will be cold through to the end of January, with snow here and there, which is just what we need. Three months of this would be terrific."
The Lecht has also enjoyed a bumper season, attracting skiers and snowboarders to the slopes since the centre opened at the beginning of December.
Peter Dupon, the managing director at the Lecht, said: "Normally, the snow comes between Christmas and the New Year and then it's chaos, but nice chaos. Having started earlier, we have been able to build into the season slowly, which is fantastic. This is certainly one of the best starts we have had for the past ten years or so."
Mark Jordan, a spokesman for the Nevis Range, said: "Today, we have had lot of fresh snow higher up the mountain, but we haven't been able to get any skiers up because of the high winds.
"But the conditions are looking good.The snow has come earlier again and what we are hoping for is another bumper season like we had last year. It is certainly a good early start."
The early snow has provided a boost to Scotland's other winter sports and adventure centres, including Glenmore Lodge, where the Cairngorm Biathlon and Nordic Ski Club is based.
Bob Kinnaird, the principal at Scotland's national outdoor training centre, said bookings for winter courses were up by an estimated 15 per cent.
"There is a lot more interest in ski mountaineering, and that is on the back of good snow cover for two years in succession," he said. "We also had a track cutter for the Nordic ski track for the first time. We have cut 25 kilometres of track, which has transformed the Nordic skiing into the best ever track we have had here."
Scottish Independent Hostels reported a boost in visitor numbers, thanks to the early snowfalls.
Rebecca Reid, at the Ardenbeg Bunkhouse in the Cairngorms National Park, said: "We have had a good number of bookings over the last few weeks, mainly for skiers looking to take advantage of the great conditions.
"Last year's successful ski season and the bumper start to this year's has given skiers the confidence to make the trip to Scotland, with those who have been before, bringing their friends"
Sports minister Shona Robison yesterday joined skiers and snowboarders taking to the slopes at Cairngorm to celebrate what a government spokeswoman said was the "best ever" early start to the Scottish skiing season.
Ms Robison said: "This year's winter sports season has got off to a terrific early start and is already shaping up to be a record-breaker with Cairngorm, Glenshee, the Nevis Range, the Lecht and Glencoe all opening early this year and recording a phenomenal 77,000 skier days since the end of November. This builds on the growth we saw during last year's bumper ski season, which was the best we had seen for 14 years."