Ski Resorts are big business with tens of thousands of jobs depending on a good season. There is nothing businesses like less than uncertainty, be it exchange rates or the vagaries of climate. The recent snowfalls have given an excellent Christmas for most French ski resorts but the main weapon in the war against the caprices of mother nature, the snow canon, was still in operation across a wide front this week. The cold weather with temperatures dipping to minus 20C overnight at 3000 meters meant that resorts were able to run their snow making facilities at full kilter, laying down valuable base for the rest of the season.
French ski resorts invested 46 Million € in snow canons during 2002, an increase of 26% compared to the previous year according to a report by the Service études et aménagement touristique de la montagne (SEATM). These investments have been coupled to reservoir building to feed the canons and improvements to pistes which make it possible to ski on only 20cm of snow.
Many pundits blame climate change for the need for snow canons, but this is only part of the picture. The base of many ski resorts, around 1200-1500 meters is an area where snow cover is traditionally erractic. Louis Raynaud, a researcher at the Glacial and Geophysical Laboratory in Grenoble thinks it is important to examine the long term picture “50 years ago, when there were no ski resorts, nobody paid much attention to snow cover. Between 1977 and 1983 we had some very exceptional years, people invested in areas when they should have taken time to consult the historical record, they thought the good times would last”. Snow canons are seen as the solution to the problem, they assure snow cover from Christmas until Easter and are being installed at ever higher altitudes. This year Tignes and Val d’Isère will equip their glaciers with snow making at 3000 meters altitude in order to assure summer and autumn skiing.
Environmentalists are alarmed at the rapid spread of snow making. In an article published in the current issue of the periodical Lettre Eau from the group France Nature Environnement (FNE), Delphine Grelat claims that canons use precious water resources. They are even thirstier than maize, a crop reputed for its consomation of water. A hectare of land (1000m2) requires some 4,000 m3 of water for snow making against 1,700 m3 for maize. Over 10 million m3 of water are used each winter, enough to supply a town of 100,000 inhabitants. To make snow at temperatures around freezing it is necessary to dope the water with additives, the effect of which has only been partially researched. Snow canons are noisy and have to be run at night to take advantage of cooler conditions, further disturbing wild animals. Snow making uses water that would otherwise feed rivers and the snow itself, being denser than real snow, melts later with an affect on flora and spring water levels.
The article talks of an over equipment of the mountains. According to the FNE, this does not properly reflect on the future of winter sports in France which are threatened by a 10% reduction in snow cover at 1,500 meters altitude over the next 20 to 30 years. At least acording to Météo France’s Crocus Model. If the predictions are true the ski seaon will be a month shorter which will particuarly affect the important Christmas and Easter holiday periods.
The counter argument is that ski resorts are an important part of French tourism and that a guaranteed season is important in a competitive ski marketplace. This is especially true given the recent fall of the US dollar. For better or for worse ski resorts now form an important chain in the economic activity of a region. Bernard Nicolas, a spokesman for SEATM, points out that ski resorts are important for deprived regions “in the Southern Alps, if it were not for skiing, the valleys would be deserted”. Ski resorts also claim that they are making investments that respect the aims of durable development. 348 Million € were invested in 2003-2004, this has enabled them to replace many old and slow lifts with higher capacity models, at the same time reducing the total number of lifts in operation. Since 1999 the total has been reduced by 47.
The President of the French Ski Lift Operators (Syndicat national des téléphériques de France - SNTF), Jean-Charles Faraudo refutes claims of over equipment. “Today we are actually getting rid of lifts. When you replace three drag lifts by a chair lift that means three times fewer pylons and lift buildings but at the same time, in terms of profit, it doesn’t bring a ski resort a single extra client”.
French ski lift operators made 970 Million € profit in 2003-2004, against 930 Million € the previous season. A high rate of reinvestment of some 37% but the SNTF says this should be viewed in the light of fierce international competition. The number of skier days has seemingly reached a plateau at around 63.7 Million € last season against 63 Million € the previous year. In the run up to Christmas this year reservations were only around 50%, in part due to poor early season conditions.
Somewhat contrary to the predictions of climatologists and the markting logic of ski resorts increasing focussed on the February holiday period, Mr. Faraudo sees an extension to the season as a way of increasing profits, “it is at the start of the season that we make our margins”. L’Alpe d’Huez has certainly taken this message to heart. On the 11th of December it opened the Marmottes 3 funitel which gives access to its high altitude ski area on the Sarenne glacier. Part of a 20 Million € investment to improve its high altitude skiing. The Sarenne has lost 20 meters of ice over the last 10 years and according to Didier Richard, a glacier specialist with the CEMAGREF in Grenoble, it “will without doubt disappear by 2050”. The resort was unable to open at the start of the 2004 autumn break as planned due to lack of snow and warm temperatures.
Another enviromental association, Mountain Wilderness, thinks that the financing of new investment in ski domains, linking both public and private interests, is dangerous. “Current projects such as the extensions of ski domains are largely financed by the public purse, either through the intermediarly of tax relief in rural areas or through investments from local government (conseils généraux)”. As PisteHors reveiled in an article in 2002, aid to ski resorts can even extend to European development funds, implicating the tax payers of the major contributors to the EU budget, Germany and the United Kingdom. This brings us nicely back to the question of Maize cited by the FNE article. Farmers, particuarly in the more arid Southern Alps, are increasingly in competition with ski resorts and the general population for precious water resources. Their plight is not exactly helped by aid from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to grow resource hungry crops such as Maize instead of farming that is more appropriate to the environment. Another example of where public money, given to assist an industry, can have unintended and market distorting, consequences.