Les Sybelles represents the current thinking in French ski resorts. Bigger domains to compete for valuable foreign clientele. While the 1992 winter Olympics did much to improve communications to the big resorts of the Tarentaise and Vanoise, the Maurienne was for a long time a hidden backwater known largely to locals. But the new motorway to Turin has done a lot to put the area on the map.
Les Sybelles (si belle – so beautiful) is a journalist’s dream of name. Headline writers can concoct an almost infinite series of puns: ‘Sybelles et Si Blanche’, so beautiful and white – l’Humanité 21/02/2004 or ‘Sybelles et si ambitieuses’, so pretty and ambitious - le Bref, February 2004. But behind the humorous headlines lies real ambition.
Of the six villages that form the area only the two purpose built resorts: la Toussuire and le Corbier have any kind of international recognition. The other four, Saint-Jean d’Arves, Saint Sorlin d’Arves, Les Bottières and Saint Colomban des Villards, are traditional Savoyard villages. However by linking together they can combine their infrastructure and marketing budgets. This means a higher profile and the possibility to invest in snow canons to assure snow during peak holiday periods, already five of the villages have created a reservoir with 100,000 m3 capacity.
The resorts have adopted the emblematic Aiguilles d’Arves as their symbol. These three pinnacles rise to 3500 meters over the resort and are clearly visible from Chamonix to Les Deux Alpes. Having been left behind by the mega-developments of the 70s and 80s may in the end prove a blessing. Mistakes can be avoided. The four traditional villages, while not providing the infrastructure of the Savoyard ski circuses provide excellent value for money. The hotel de la Poste in St Columban offers single rooms for just 19 euros per night and the bar of the Hotel Glandon, a favourite with ski tourists returning from the surrounding mountains, has Vin Chaud and Beer on tap for just 2 euros.
The main problem now is accommodation. There are currently 30,000 beds, largely second homes which are infrequently occupied and don’t bring a great deal of revenue to the lift company. In comparison l’Espace Killy (Tignes and Val d’Isère) has 60,000 beds and Paradiski (Les Arcs and La Plagne) 90,000 beds.
This is an obstacle to the three companies that run the area (Soremet, Satvac et Samso). In order to bring in foreign guests they need to attract tour operators and that means building hotels and apartments. The plan is to add between 10,000 and 15,000 beds while at the same time trying to avoid some of the horrors seen in other French resorts. Robert Balmain, the Mayor of Saint-Sorlin d’Arves has stipulated that no new building is over 3 stories and must have wooden balconies.
The area is investing heavily in the ski lifts. 30 million euros has already spent and as much again is planned. The area comprises 310 km of pistes, said to be the fourth largest in France and a further 40km at Albiez are a bus ride away. The lifts generate 18 million euros turnover annually, about half that of Courchevel. Of course the lifts need maintenance, approximately 5% of the investment cost must be spent annually. A high-speed six-seater chair has been built at le Mont Ouillon and a further five high-speed chairs will be built over the next three years. While most people from the area are behind the plans, 85% of jobs in the domain go to locals, environmentalists are not so happy. The development of the area has only grudgingly been accepted and on the sole condition that the Glacier d’Etendard which stretches out to the peaks of neighbouring l’Alpe d’Huez is preserved. The new chairs will also make many of the off-piste spots more accessible, some will even become pistes, and may permanently change the ambiance of the resorts.
Les sybelles on the web.