Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.
Another wretched year of poor snow cover and declining visitors and the Alpine ski industry is looking nervously into the future. A venerable Swiss resort in the heart of the cheese-making region of Gruyère is wondering how to keep the lifts going while France, once the world's ski mecca, is casting jealous eyes at rivals in the United States, which has stolen the crown in the annual global tally of skier days.
It's a wake-up call; European resort operators are frantically targeting the Chinese ski yuan, hoping that it might replace the sagging Russian ruble. Meanwhile, American and Canadian resorts could enjoy a boost from foreign skiers, especially the British, fed up with poor snow conditions in Europe and high prices.
Snow was falling heavily in the Alps last week as a loop in the jet stream pushed polar air into northern Europe. The spring chill was a final insult to Europe's mountain hoteliers, lift operators and ski instructors, too late to make amends for a second poor winter season in a row. Uncannily warm weather at Christmas, 2015, almost forced low-lying resorts to their knees, a commercial hammering that was repeated last December when a lengthy drought left slopes in the Western Alps bone dry until late January.
In France, skiers purchased 52 million days on the slopes in 2015-16, down 3 per cent on the previous year, compared with America's 54 million. Official industry statistics for 2017 are not yet published but it is clear that skier numbers have dipped again. Compagnie des Alpes, the biggest operator, boasting Val-d'Isère and La Plagne among its portfolio of resorts, suffered a 2.6-per-cent decline in attendance during the six months to the end of March. Ski schools have suffered, too; ESI, which represents instructors in France, Switzerland and Italy, reckons attendance is down 3 per cent with a third of its members complaining of a poor season.
Weak snow cover at low altitudes is forcing resorts to make hard choices. Webcams, ubiquitous in ski resorts, are partly to blame; day-trippers wait to see the big dump before they buy their lift pass. Chateau d'Oex, a low-lying Swiss resort in the heart of Gruyère, needs a public subsidy to upgrade an old cable car but the authorities are unenthusiastic. The resort first made popular by wealthy British tourists in the early 1900s struggles to compete with high alpine rivals.
It's tempting to put on a climate-change hat and predict the beginning of the end of winter sports. But the critical issue facing the ski industry right now is soaring costs, not rising average temperatures. Even with higher living standards, skier days worldwide have reached a plateau. According to statistics compiled by Louis Vanat, a Swiss-based global winter-sports industry consultant, the number of skier days worldwide remains just under 400 million, having stagnated for more than a decade. Despite population growth and new skiers in Russia and the Far East, the numbers remain static in key resorts in Europe and America while falling in Japan. There are millions more joining the middle classes every year, but skiing is still regarded as an exotic, difficult and dangerous activity enjoyed by eccentric and wealthy people.
Invented by the British in Switzerland at the beginning of the 20th century, the sport of skiing was once a pastime for a gentry class of mountaineers and explorers. Skiing remained an exclusive club until the economic expansion that followed the end of the Second World War in Europe, notably in France, where the state actively promoted investment in mountain holiday resorts. Several decades of prosperity, rapid growth and paid holidays helped to build the huge ski complexes of Tignes, La Plagne and Les Trois Vallées. But the prosperity has been crimped. In a recent survey conducted by the Rhône-Alpes region, French skiers cited the economy and cost of living, not weather or snow depth, as the biggest factor affecting their enjoyment of skiing last season.
For the really big operators, the penny has dropped. U.S.-based Vail Resorts, which in 2016 acquired Whistler Blackcomb, the top Canadian ski destination, reported a solid 7-per-cent rise in revenue from lift passes in the season ending in April. It also made more money from food, ski school and shopping, but even so, the actual number of skier days fell by almost 3 per cent compared with the previous year.
Vail's European rival, Compagnie des Alpes, is experiencing the same phenomenon – income and profit are increasing but the footfall at the ski lifts is gently declining. The solution for both companies is clear – squeeze more dollars out of each customer and target big international spenders whenever possible. Hence, Vail's purchase of Whistler, a top destination for affluent British skiers.
Are skiers willing to carry on paying more for the promise of powder? It must be a diminishing number and repeated disappointment tends to curb the appetite. There will always be a core of diehard enthusiasts but skiing is difficult, cold and sometimes frightening. It is no longer an eccentric activity for the unemployed and wealthy but it could get that way.
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