The French winter season was like the proverbial curates egg, good in parts. The start was affected by Christmas and New Year falling on a Saturday. This discouraged French tourists who did not fancy spending Christmas and New Years Eve behind the wheel of a car and complicated the transfer days of the Tour Operators. In the Alps eyes turned skywards waiting for snow; this didn’t fall in quantity until the 28th of December. The result was a decrease of 5 to 15% in lift pass takings and an overall 15% drop for lettings.
Great snow, but where are the skiers?
Foreign skiers make January
January was fantastic, saved by an invasion of foreign visitors: British, Belgium and Dutch, knowing a good thing, arrived en-masse. They experienced great weather in the first two weeks followed by snow. In the first week of January over half of tourists were non-French. Visitor numbers were up 50%.
A real winter in February but too cold to ski
The key February holiday period was marked by large snowfalls but largely in the valleys and mid-mountain areas coupled with intense cold and strong winds from the north. In February the ski resort of Villard de Lans had 7.6 meters snow depth at 1700m altitude. Contrast that with the Savoie where there were 30 year lows above 2000 meters altitude. Temperatures dropped down to -30C at 2500 meters. The weather patterns were largely from the North and the snowfall didn’t penetrate into the Southern Alps. even les Deux Alpes (-4%) and l’Alpe d’Huez (-0.8%) experienced poor conditions. Judging by comments this appears to have come as a shock to the MBAs who run the big resorts nowadays and who are more used to snow coming from the nozzle of a canon, to be turned on once the public has gone to bed.
Occupation in February was good at more than 90% with many last minute bookings encouraged by the good snow conditions in mid-mountain regions. Tourists favoured hotels over furnished appartments with a 9% increase in occupation for hotels in lower lying resorts, in particular the Vercors and Oisans. However the cold conditions lead many holiday makers to restrict their time skiing and look to other activities, this had a knock on affect in lift pass sales, particularly in the high resorts. Overall the French ski lift operators (SNTF) report stability in turnover for the Northern Alps for February in comparison with the last two winters. Interest in cross-country skiing continues to decline, something that should give pause for thought for those resorts wishing to charge for using snow-shoe trails, the current major growth sport.
Further south the Drôme had a lot of snow in February with over a meter in the ski resorts. The small ski resorts had record turnover but the cold weather affected access by road. The Jura also had good snow and managed to maintain visitor numbers compared to a good last season despite the weather which discouraged tourists.
Roads impassable in the Massif Central
In the Massif Central the resort of Chalmazel had reduced visitor numbers due to snow conditions which rendered roads impractical for much of February. The highways department even had to carry out avalanche blasting above some routes in the Loire department. Cross country skiing condtions were excellent but practicants were put off by the freezing conditions. Le Mont Dore and Super Besse both had double figure increases in turnover and seasons 10 days longer. To the south of the area resorts such as Le Lioran experienced poor snow but still managed to improve turnover by 1.1%.
Heatwave in March
The first part of March was cold but this was followed by spring conditions and record temperatures in the valleys. This lead to a rapid thaw. The micro-resort of the Petite Roches above Grenoble closed on the 18th of March. The conditions encouraged many day and short stay skiers. Chalmazel in the Loire department had an excellent start to the month. However the summer conditions put long stay tourists in the mood for beach holidays and visits to the coast or to get dust down their mountain bikes. Others decided to save their vacation and holiday money for the summer.
Jean-Charles Simiand of the SNTF has identified a core of tourists who put their skis in the garage on Easter Monday and get the lawn mower out. Isabelle Bosquet, assistant director of the Hautes-Alpes tourism committee said they had prepared a marketing campaign for April showing tourists that they could ski in the morning and canoe in the Durannce after lunch. Perhaps somewhat unfortunate given the poor snow and near drought conditions experienced in the region this season. The Southern Alps resort of the Val d’Allos had a drop of 29.9% in turnover on its lift pass sales after an excellent 2003-2004 season. With the redevelopment of the Soleige complex and other projects this may calm speculation in this area which invested 5.2 million euros in the ski area last year. It was not all bad news in the South, Superdevoluy benefitted from some of the good snow that hit the Vercors and saw a 12.5% increase in turnover, admittedly from a poor 2003/04.
Easter comes early but holidays are late
The end of the season was affected by an early Easter, on the 27th of March and late spring holidays, which finally drew to a close on the 8th of May. A week after most of the bigger resorts had closed their doors. Occupancy was only 33% for the Spring holidays, a drop of 2% compared to last season.
The devil however, is in the details. Looking at two resorts in the Isère shows the contrast between low lying Villard des Lans and high altitude les Deux Alpes. Villard des Lans had a slight increase in lift pass sales for January and February and despite the subsequent heatwave the good snow provided an excellent March with an average end to the Season. At the start of May there was still over a meter of snow in the resort. Overall the lifts saw a 17% increase in skier days, an increase from 407,000 to 447,000. On the other hand les Deux Alpes had poor snow but the intense cold preserved the cover. The start of January was very good but February was stable compared to last season. March was also good but according to the Tourist Office the end of the season was a disaster with an overall decrease in turnover on the lifts. The resort is hoping for a summer bonus with the Mondial du VTT (International Mountain Bike event) between the 23rd to 26th of June.
Overall the Northern Alps saw a stable or slight increase in lift pass sales (the final figures should be available shortly) with a 3% decrease in lettings. Apart from in the Southern Alps, which recored occupancy levels of under 50% for the season and where many resorts were forced to close after Easter, mountain professionals were fairly satisfied with the season. L’Alpe d’Huez said that its new Marmottes III lift had been well received. Some fear this will encourage the rash of new developments in the Espace Diamant, Maurienne, Crévoux with a new lift on the Ratelle and in the Arêche Beaufort with a possible extension to the col de la Bâtie. The Compagnie des Alpes already has plans for a new resort at Flaine and to increase the number of beds in Paradiski as well as covering 40% of the les Arcs pistes with snow canons.
More short stay and last minute bookings
There are some noticeable trends. Low cost airlines and the exponential use of the Internet are encouraging more short stays and last minute bookings. Something not currently well catered for with the traditional week-to-week lettings. Visitors are increasingly relying on the appartments and chalets of friends and relatives. The shorter working week in France but depressed economy has also encouraged a move towards long weekends rather than the traditional seven day stay.
Mountain tourism represents 85% of visitor numbers to the Rhône-Alpes region during February with nearly 90% of tourists staying in resorts in the two Savoies. On average a visitors spends 65 euros per day with most money going on ever more expensive lift passes. This season visitors were dissatisfied with access to resorts and with confort on the lifts. Not surprising given the adverse weather conditions.
The Compagnie des Alpes (CdA) which operates many of France’s top resorts including Méribel, Tignes, Chamonix and Flaine had a difficult first quarter (October to December) with a turnover of 46 million euros, a drop of 6.9% in real terms. It blamed this on the late snow. However the important 2nd quarter covering February was better, up +6.8% compared with the same period last year. March was particularly good thanks to foreign visitors and the early easter which was in April the previous year. However they expect a more difficult third quarter and predict overall sales figures in line with the previous year.
The CdA took control of Serre Chevalier 1350 in the Southern Alps in January with the aim of investing 30 millions € over a six year period. However the dry winter saw a 12% reduction in turnover with a 26% drop in skier days. The only positive figure was artificiel snow production which more than doubled over the previous season. All this must have had a negative effect on the CdA’s overall bottom line.
Update: Best and Worst of Times
St Piere de Chartreuse +36%
Alpe du Grande Serre +18.5%
Villard de Lans +36.6%
Lans en Vercors + 35.4%
Le Corbier +19%
Ste Foy +14.8%
La Plagne -1%
Serre Chevalier -15.9%
Val d’Allos -29.9%