Looking around the swanky hotels of Courchevel it is hard to imagine that in the post war-euphoria the resort was conceived as the people’s station However the trend set by Courchevel and Val d’Isere is being followed by other resorts as they combat falling visitor numbers by moving upmarket.
In the previous decade visitor numbers have dropped from 10 million to 7 million a year. But the proportion of non-French visitors: English, Russian and from the Middle-East has risen from 15% to nearer 30% today. 25% of the total are snowboarders. Opinions vary as to why fewer French ski today. Gilbert Blanc-Tailleur, Mayor of St Bon and president of Ski France attributes it to the 50% reduction in ski classes for school children. “Lots of kids never get to discover the mountain if they don’t visit with the school, many communities find the costs of ski classes excessive compared with the educational benefit, but these are tomorrow’s clients.”
At the same time the cost of a week’s ski holiday has nearly doubled over the last 20 years, even when allowing for inflation. Skiing is viewed as a luxury holiday by many households in France who now prefer to take a winter break in the sun. Climate change and economic reasons have also lead to the closure of some of the smaller stations where people would learn to ski close to home. Only this year Chambon les Neiges in the Massif Central has shut. At Puy St Vincent the ski company is in debt and Orcières Merlettes is in urgent need of 30 million € of investment in the lift system. For Puy St Vincent, as with other resorts in the Hautes-Alpes, it looks as if the local government will come to their rescue.
The drop in numbers is not reflected in the profits of the star resorts. They have either raised prices ahead of inflation (a week’s lift ticket increased on average 6% last season) or have sought to attract wealthier visitors. The Compagnie des Alpes (CDA) has recently partnered with Intrawest, the North American owners of Whistler. This has already lead to the development of the luxury Chantel appartements in Arc 1800 and the creation of an entirely new ski resort at Arcs 1950. CDA already owns seven of the top twelve French resorts including: les Arcs, Flaine, Méribel, la Plagne and Tignes and they are currently interested in buying Serre Chevalier in the Southern Alps.
With development land increasingly rare in the big resorts companies such as P&V and Club Méditerranée are envisaging redeveloping their existing properties for the luxury sector. Many of the buildings erected in the 1970s are close to the end of their lives so this is a logical next step.
According to SkiFrance the lift systems and snow making facilities in many resorts require major investment to remain competitive with North America, Switzerland and Austria. On average 20% of turnover is reinvested in ski lifts, around €138 million over the last 5 years.