It was panic yesterday in the tiny ski resort of Saint-Pierre de Chartreuse as winter made an unexpected return, or should that be start? With half a meter of fresh snow the piste director spent the evening ringing around his list of temporary staff in an effort to get some lifts running. Most had already headed for the coast to prepare for the summer season after a disappointing winter of lay-offs and short time working.
With a very mild winter, the two months of January and February have been the longest uninterrupted warm spell recorded by Meteo France in Winter, ski resorts have had a miserable season. Economists estimate that around 30% of Gross Domestic Product is directly connected to the weather. French electricity consumption dropped 8.4% in January compared to last year, even if has increased in ski domains to run snow making.
According to consultants Protourisme mid-mountain ski resorts like St Pierre have seen bookings drop by 30 to 40% this winter. Even high altitude resorts, those with the majority of their ski runs above 1800m, have suffered a 10 to 15% drop in reservations. Protourisme’s head Pierre Folliet says that this winter should be a wake-up call to ski resorts. The population is getting older and lower altitude ski resorts need to reposition their product. Already around 40% of winter visitors don’t ski. The high-altitude resorts of the Savoie, oriented towards a younger and international market will resist both climatic and demographic changes better. Resorts will need to invest in alternatives to downhill skiing; ice-rinks, spas, swimming pools and sport centers have all shown increased use this winter.
Claude Faure, president of the Three Valleys Lift Company (S3V) which runs the lifts in Courchevel and Meribel-Mottaret says “it is hard for people to be enthusiastic about a winter holiday with all they’ve heard this year about climate change which gives the impression that skiing is finished… overall we will probably end the season with turnover down around 3 to 4%”. Some ski resorts believe that Protourisme figures are too extreme. Consulting group Comète puts the reservation figure at a global drop of 3.8%, rising to 6.6% in mid-mountain resorts. 34,000 season workers have been affected by the mild weather and lack of snow.
As Saint-Pierre has shown, all is not lost. Eric Feyeux marketing director of the Compagnie des Alpes thinks that the recent snow will give a boost to short stay holidays or weekend trips during the spring. The Hautes-Alpes have also faired better with a good Christmas and reservations the same, if not better, over the key February winter holiday period. The area has opened to an international market with visitors from the north of Europe compensating a declining French market.
The Pyrénées have gone from famine to feast. Over a meter of snow has fallen in some areas over the last 48 hours with a high avalanche risk. There were no presents at Christmas, many areas only opened for the New Year, a full month later than normal. Jérôme Meunier head of the area’s lift operators syndicate says that there was an significant drop in visitor numbers for December and January. The February holiday period also saw a drop in reservations around 10%.
The misery hasn’t been evenly spread. While lift operators and ski shops have seen a big decrease in turnover hotels have been less severly affected with many holidays booked far in advance. It seems that tourists have looked to other activities: walking, mountain-biking, snowshoe tours or even spas.
Skiing is big business in France. Lift companies generated over a billion euros in turnover last year and it is estimated that winter sports generate 5 to 6 billion euros for the French economy. After a long period of growth investments in ski areas stagnated last year with 360 million euros being spent. However there was a 7% increase in spending on artificial snow cover. Artificial snow is the main priority for the Compagnie des Alpes which aims to double the area covered in the 14 resorts it runs. The Compagnie des Alpes is currently in talks to take a majority shareholding in the Val d’Isere ski lift operation (STVI) as well as minority shareholdings in Avoriaz, La Rosière and Valmorel.
After finding the necessary staff Saint Pierre has four lifts open including the main cable car. There is 40cm of snow at resort level, 100cm at the top of the runs at 1800 meters. A lift pass cost 10.60 euros. The avalanche risk remains Considerable off open ski runs.