Faced with the twin challenges of a long-range climate crisis and short-term weather that leaves bald spots on hills, ski resort owners and operators are struggling to adapt.
“We have been seeing the impacts, both when mountains can’t open and in higher prices for lift tickets when they do,” says Laura Gardiner, Alpine skiing day trips director for North Toronto Ski Club.
Members of the volunteer-run club are seeing single ski day price increases of more than 20 per cent above prepandemic levels. This puts day rates above $100, in some cases, and it’s putting pressure on resort owners to make sure their facilities keep visitors satisfied, she says.
“Resort owners in Ontario tell me the price increases go directly into making snow,” Ms. Gardiner says. While colder weather in mid-January this year has made snowmaking easier, it can be difficult to keep the hills covered.
In Ontario and [areas] in the East, resorts need to invest and spend more and more on snowmaking. In the West they don’t have as much need, but when they do they have to draw from groundwater, which is not sustainable.— Daniel Scott, associate chair of climate change programs at University of Waterloo
Snowmaking is not cheap either. Last year, Mount St. Louis Moonstone, near Barrie, Ont., invested nearly $2-million in snowmaking equipment and piping after coming through a COVID-19-shortened season in 2021 that meant heavy losses.
The resort, located in an often snow-heavy area north of Toronto, has continually expanded its snowmaking since 1966, two years after it opened. “The first snowmaking system was installed after realizing that being in the Snow Belt did not always mean you had snow,” the resort notes on its website.
Snow in the area is even less reliable now in an era of climate change. Environment and Climate Change Canada’s weather tracking station in the area reported more rain than snow in 2023.
“Climate change has become a business planning reality in the ski industry,” says Daniel Scott, associate chair of climate change programs at the University of Waterloo’s department of geography and environment management.
He says that ski resorts’ business and real estate investment responses vary from region to region, but there’s a common factor – no snow, no go.
“This is our future. In Ontario and [areas] in the East, resorts need to invest and spend more and more on snowmaking. In the West they don’t have as much need, but when they do they have to draw from groundwater, which is not sustainable,” Dr. Scott says.
“Climate change will alter the competitiveness of individual ski areas and destinations,” he explained in a paper he co-authored with academics Natalie Knowles, also at Waterloo, Robert Steiger from the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and Yan Fang of Beijing Sport University’s School of Sports Recreation and Tourism.
“Investors and financial regulators increasingly require climate risk disclosure … [as] real estate markets respond to the new realities of ski tourism in a warmer world and some leading destination communities begin to develop climate change response plans,” they reported in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism.
According to research organization IBISWorld, Canada’s ski resort industry is estimated to be worth $1.5-billion this year. So far this year, there has been ample snow in parts of western Canada and the western United States, but the situation has been dire at European ski resorts in normally snow-laden Switzerland, France and southern Germany, where a record-breaking warm spell sent temperatures soaring and forced some resorts to close at the beginning of January.
Resorts that are not suffering snow shortages, such as Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, are going all out to highlight their overall environmental records. “We’re putting a lot of effort into ensuring the health of the surrounding forest, and we’re also the first ski resort to be certified as a B Corporation,” says chief executive officer David Norden. B Corporation is a standard given out by a non-profit organization that certifies high environmental standards.
“We’re actually eight years ahead of our own schedule to be carbon neutral in energy use by 2030 – we’re there already,” he says.
While no Canadian resorts have earned B Corporation status yet, most are pushing to become more sustainable. For example, Blue Mountain Ski Resort in Collingwood, Ont., has reduced the electrical consumption of its night-skiing lights by 40 per cent by retrofitting with LED lighting, and it now pumps 30 per cent less water than it did in 2015 for snowmaking.
In Ontario and the Eastern U.S., larger ski resorts also recognize the need to diversify and offer alternative activities in the winter and other outdoor sports the rest of the year.
“A lot of resorts we deal with are adding attractions, such as spas, indoor water parks and toboggan runs for kids, which don’t require a lot of snow,” Ms. Gardiner says. For example, Holiday Valley in Ellicottville, N.Y., (near Buffalo) features snow-tubing, a roller-coaster ride through the woods and golfing in the non-ski months, she says, and Blue Mountain markets itself as a year-round sports and spa destination.
“It comes down to revenue diversification as ski seasons become shorter,” Dr. Scott says. “Even in a place like Whistler [Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in B.C.], green-season visitation now exceeds ski-season visits,” he says.
It’s easier for resorts to adapt to climate change if they have integrated business models – owning the ski facilities and the ski village accommodations and commercial properties at the site, he adds.
“Resorts that are owned by conglomerates, some of which are publicly traded, can get access to capital to add facilities. They also need funds to make sure the ski experience is still good, with adequate lift lines, easy parking and so on,” he says.
“It’s not as easy to do this in resorts such as many of the sites in Europe, which grew around existing towns where, long ago, someone put in a ski lift. In those places it’s not always clear who will pay for the improvements,” he explains.
Ski areas are most viable if they’re 12-month destinations, agrees James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at the Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.
“That’s why Banff works as a ski destination. You have the national park, and you can draw visitors year-round for tourism, conferences and getaways,” he says.
“It is a huge advantage being in Banff. About 20 per cent of our visitors are from outside Canada, and some people come just to be introduced to snow,” says Kendra Scurfield, brand and communications manager at Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort in the national park.
While Sunshine has not suffered a snow drought like other resorts, it still uses a “snow-farming” system to move piles to ensure that all the runs are covered safely, she says.
“Most of the power we draw from Banff is hydroelectric, and we highlight this as people drive past on their way here. We have signs up,” she says.
As many as 60 million people a year in the U.S. and nearly 20 million a year in Canada hit the slopes each year, Dr. Scott’s research notes, so commercial ski resorts are not likely to disappear.
“Ski resorts have a future,” he says. “The ones in the most vulnerable areas need strategies to adapt to climate change, though.”