Posted on: 2024-02-11 16:36:28 by davidof

French ski resorts on the brink

Faced with a double whammy of sky-high electricity bills and a second season of poor snow and record temperatures a number of French ski resorts are on the brink of bankruptcy and may join  the 150 other French ski areas that have shut over the last 20 years, most recently la Sambuy on the banks of Lake Annecy.

Meteo France reports that, with the exception of April 2023, temperatures over the previous 24 months have been above the long term average. But haven’t we been here before? In the late 80s and 90s a series of disastrous winters drove a number of ski areas to the wall. The authorities had to step in with bailouts and restructuring.

After the boom years of the 70s and 80s the misery began during Christmas, 1988. There was no snow but resorts had seen worse, however a blocking high settled over the alps in January with little snow below 1800 meters. Just 10cm at Autrans and 15cm at Megeve. Hire shops packed their skis away and started renting mountain bikes and walking boots. In the Southern Alps 4000 seasonal workers were laid off.

Next season was no better, not a flake of snow fell below 2000 meters from the 1st December 1989 and the 25th January 1990. In the second half of January there was less than 10cm of snow at the bottom of the pistes of l’Alpe d’Huez, la Plagne, Val d’Isere and Isola 2000. The worst winter since 1964. Skiing was only really possible above 2000 meters and on north facing slopes. The weather broke in mid February with a storm that blasted the alps for 4 days. Thousands of tourists were trapped in the Tarentaise valley. The joy of fresh snow was short lived as rain swept in below 1500 meters.

Le Semnoz, Haute-Savoie 9th February 2024

The problem back then was not so much temperatures but long periods with no snow. Alpine weather patterns typically see snowfall at the start of winter then blocking highs and fine weather for weeks on end. Miss the autumn dumps and the season can be a disaster. The decades following have seen highs, such as 1994, and lows like 2007. Resorts have largely insulated themselves from the vagaries of natural snowfall with snowmaking.

Resorts fill huge reservoirs with water during the spring thaw and subsequent rainfall. This is turned into snow to provide a solid base as soon as the average temperatures are low enough. Usually in the second half of November. Ideally snowmaking needs a dryish atmosphere and sub-zero temperatures to operate efficiently. Snowmaking in a warming climate is problematic. A recent study showed that 27% of French resorts would be in difficulty with a +2°C rise in temperatures from pre-industrial levels and at  +4°C the vast majority of resorts would be affected. The Northern Alps have already seen a +2.1°C rise.

Faced with the lack of snow, warming climate and cost of snowmaking the ski area of la Sambuy took the painful decision to close its ski lifts this season after 60 years of operation. At the start of the season there was some interest in reopening the lifts in the future but the conditions this year will probably dampen that enthusiasm. Near Grenoble the ski station of St Hilaire du Touvet has barely operated since the Covid crisis. The mayor decided that there was no future in alpine skiing. A group of enthusiasts want to run the lifts on a voluntary basis but have not been able to open this season due to lack of snow and inability to run the snowmaking due to the warm temperatures. Just getting the lifts back into working condition cost 15,000 €.


On the Vercors plateau the ski resort of Autrans-Meaudre has said this year is make or break for alpine skiing. This is a much bigger ski area than those mentioned above with 24 ski runs. The commune has a deficit of  700,000 €  although some locals accuse the town hall of mismanaging the ski area. To save money 4 drag lifts in Autrans have been shut along with their pistes and half the staff laid off. Meaudre, situated at only 1000 meters, will only open at weekends and holidays. There will be less piste preparation. If the losses continue the authorities will oblige the commune to shut the lift system. For good. Last season with just 50 opening days the ski area lost  500 000 €. With just 4 weeks left this season things don’t look better. Another Vercors resort, the col de l'Arzelier, shut in 2018.

Mont Aigoual

It is a similar picture further south at Mont Aigoual. The ski station suffered its warmest winter on record in 2019. In 2020 Covid shut the ski lifts. 2021 was a drought and no snow. Last season was also difficult. Mont Aigoual is the only alpine ski area left in the Cévennes. In November a team of volunteers trimmed the trees by the pistes, melt water from the branches was damaging the pistes. Alpe d’Huez sent its team of technicians to replace one of the lift cables, saving the ski area 10 000 €. A bigger problem is the cost of electricity. Last season the bill was 158,000 €; more than double the previous bills. This year the resort has an agreement with their electricity supplier, the EDF, to reduce the bill to 113 000€. However this winter is the last chance saloon for the resort. If they don’t open for the February school holiday period the area will have to close.

le Lioran

Le Lioran, 9th February 2024

At le Lioran, the largest ski area in the Massif Central the bill has gone from 40 € to 340 € per MWh; 1.1 million € per year. The resort has managed to open 12 out of 44 pistes at the start of the holidays but the entire nordic area is closed. Again the financial stability of the resort is in peril.

Alpe du Grand Serre

The Alpe du Grand Serre has already experienced the pain of closure. It’s linked resort, St Honore, shut since the mid 90s. Now a sword of Damocles hangs over  the remaining lifts.  The commune has not been able to balance the books. The SATA, which manages l’Alpe d’Huez and les Deux Alpes, ran the lifts for a period but since they threw in the towel the commune had had to step in. However the deficits are unsustainable for the local authorities. A decision will be taken at the end of the winter about whether to shut the ski lifts.

The ski area needs an investment of 26 million €. Public authorities are prepared to stump up 17 million € and the SATA which runs l’Alpe d’Huez and les Deux Alpes is prepared to help out but that still leaves a large shortfall. At the start of the key February holiday period only two green pistes are open. 200 jobs depend on the resort. “we are at the brink of a major social crisis for the French mountains,” warned one local politician.

Gap Bayard

The cross country ski area of Gap-Bayard (1246m) has decided to unplug its snow canons this year. "Too expensive for too little gain" say the director Michel Girard. "With our two snow canons we can cover a loop of a couple of kilometers, 60,000 euros of expenses for 30,000 euros of receipts, it doesn't add up. When there is no natural snow people are not interested", he continues. The alpine ski area of Céüze, just across the valley, closed a few years ago due to lack of snow.


The pistes at Ventron in the Vosges will remain closed for the fourth season in a row. The issue is the bankruptcy of the company that runs the lifts. The new management don't want to run the lift system. The prefect has also ordered the lifts not to open until they have safety visits. If these are not completed in the next 5 years the lift system will be shut permenantly.


For the second season in a row the second largest ski area in the Vosges has been forced to close during the week due to the mild weather. For the director, Benoît Perrin, the season is already practically over and the resort will have to restructure its ski area with only a third of the current number of pistes in the future.


A report of over 100 pages from the French Government Accountability Office, published this week, will not please l’Alpe du Grande Serre and other ski areas looking to refinance.  It warns that the French model of public/private ski resort management is at the end of the road. 70% of the clientèle is French and France has a large proportion of small and medium sized ski areas.

Currently 23% of turnover of French ski areas with a turnover of less than 15 million € is public spending and the report warns that this percentage will increase with climate change at a time when public accounts are under pressure from other areas. Public funding is not restricted to small ski areas. The Rhone-Alpes region contributed 10 M€ out of 39 M€ to the new Orelle - Val Thorens link. Snow making was subsidized to the tune of  1,78 M€ at Méribel; 1,46 M€ at Les Arcs; 2,5 M€ at Val Thorens; 1,06 M€ at les Deux Alpes; 2,22 M€ at Courchevel; 1,12 M€ at Val d’Isère and 1,18 M€ at Châtel.

The GAO warns that artificial snow making was only a short term solution to climate change and the heavy investment and running costs have delayed ski areas in an inevitable reconversion of their economic model. It says ski areas have underestimated the impact on the water cycle of snowmaking and suggests that projects should be controlled at a national level.

Temperatures in the mountains are rising faster than the French average, a phenomenon that has accelerated since 2010. The report warns that all French ski resorts will be impacted by 2050. It notes that the number of skier days has also been in decline since 2010 since reaching a peak of 58.6 million per season, a time when France was the world’s no1 ski destination.

Gilles Chabert, former president of the French Ski Schools Syndicate (ESF) has stated that “Skiing on its own is finished but without skiing, everything is finished.” The GAO contests this vision stating that ski areas have difficulty imagining a model different from alpine skiing with a mis-allocation of resources in efforts to diversify: luges, via ferrata, swimming pools etc. with lack of coordination between different communes frequently in competition with each other. Studies claim that 1 € spent on a lift pass results in 6 € of spending in resort. The GAO says this may be true in the mega-resorts of the Savoie but in medium sized resorts the figure is closer to 1:3 and doesn’t take into account money spent by public authorities on infrastructure: transport, roads etc.

The 2020/21 sanitary crisis was something of a watershed for French mountain tourism, which represents around a quarter of all tourism in France. During Covid visits to the mountains fell 39%. In the winter holidays, with ski lifts closed, overall occupancy rates for the Northern Alps were 41% instead of 82%. In part this was due to travel restrictions but there was still an appetite for other activities: walking, cross country and ski touring. The principal difference was that skiers privileged more traditional alpine villages for their stays.

Compared with other touristic investment such as theme parks the report is concerned that turnover in ski resorts is concentrated into the six weeks of French winter holidays. For Chamrousse for the five year period (excepting Covid) from 2017/18, 56% of turnover occurred in this period. For smaller resorts the situation is worse. In the 21/22 season St Pierre de Chartreuse saw 40% of annual turnover during the two weeks of the Zone A (Rhône-Alpes Auvergne/Aquitaine) winter holidays.

Lack of snow and fewer visitors mean that small and medium ski areas have trouble balancing the books. They can cover day to day operating costs but are unable to invest in the future, relying on public funds to renew lift infrastructure and invest in snow making. One of the reasons l’Alpe du Grand Serre r is seeking 26 M€ is that it claims the area has hardly invested since it opened. The report says that with climate change a reality authorities need to be extremely careful about investments with a horizon of 15 to 30 years. They fear the mountains may become a Detroit-like wasteland with abandoned ski lifts and properties that don’t meet modern climate requirements. There are around 200 abandoned infrastructures in the Alps despite the 2016 mountain law requiring ski areas to remove obsolete lifts etc. Others argue that even without snow the mountains will become summer climate havens for people escaping the long, torrid summers expected in places like Grenoble and Lyon in the next decades.

The Audit Office's report didn't receive a warm welcome from ski resorts who criticise the methodology. The report studied 42 representative ski areas but critics say much is being done and that was missed in the analysis. One things seems clear, alpine skiing below 1500 meters faces a very uncertain future and slopes below 1800 meters altitude will become increasingly hard to exploit in the 2030s. This also condemns much of France's nordic skiing which is frequently situation on plateau in the 1200 meter range. At the start of the winter holidays only one cross country ski areas in the Jura was open, two partially open in the Massif Central; one in the Vosges and only 4 areas in the whole of France claim all their runs are open (source: Nordic France).

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