Ski resorts break records in 2009

With a return to a proper winter after two lean years fortunes have been mixed for winter tourism as British skiers, who make up 40% of guests in certain ski resorts, were hit hard by the credit crunch. The snow also brought avalanches to some areas which blocked roads and damaged infrastructure.

late season skiing
Late season skiing was excellent

Although last winter was the 7th coldest over the last 30 years snow cover was more variable. The Pyrenees, Massif Central, Southern Alps and Corsica benefited from early season storms that swept in from the Mediterranean as well as more usual Atlantic weather fronts. These weather systems were largely spent by the time they had pushed north into the Savoie with only border areas such as Val d’Isere and the Haute-Maurienne seeing much benefit. In the Northern Alps the cold weather preserved the snow so that conditions were skiable, without necessarily being exceptional, from 800-1000 meters from December through to the end of March. The key February school holiday period also saw a sustained period of fine weather.

Isola 2000 was closed twice during the winter and important road links with Italy and Spain remained shut for long periods. Violent storms also closed ski lifts and left roads impassible with debris. A major storm on the 24th January devastated forests around Bordeaux and obliged some of the Pyrenean resorts to shut for several days.

increase in turnover
Increase in turnover compared to 5 year average

Pyrenees hits the jackpot

The Pyrenees has suffered two bad years which has brought ski areas such as Porte Puymorens to the verge of bankruptcy. Excellent spring snow last year came too late and ski resorts were concerned about 2009.

Overall turnover for the mountain’s 38 ski areas was a whopping 26% up on last season and even beat the previous best year, 2005/6 by 2%. However taking into account inflation the figure is actually a slight fall from that record season. Lift pass receipts totaled 102 million euros. Looking at the average of the last 5 years turnover was up a satisfactory 9%.

There were 5.4 million skier/days, up 19% on last year. Not bad during a credit crunch, indeed the recession and good snow may have been to the area’s advantage as cash strapped skiers went searching for better value. Around 70% of skiers are local; they are not bound by a week’s winter holiday booked months in advance but ski when there is snow.

The Pyrenees tourist board says it is receptive to changing patterns in winter sports holidays. It has noted a trend away from downhill skiing to cross country and snow shoeing. They suggest that this to an aging population. As an example the cross country area of Capcir saw a four fold increase in visitors.

Star of the Pyrenees was Puigmal. Lift pass sales were up a staggering 122 %, although last season was very difficult for the area. They managed +15 % compared to 2005/6. The domain was the first to open in the French Pyrenees in mid November. Only Masella in Spain opened earlier, on the 8th.

La Quillane increased turnover by 6% compared to 2005/2006. Porté-Puymorens and Puyvalador had good but not exceptional results. It seems that day skiers were tempted by closer resorts such as Ax which saw skier days rise 2% and turnover up 10%. The increase is largely due to a hike in lift prices. The resort justifies this by a major investment programme in the ski area.

At Peyragudes skier days increased by 7.9% with turnover up 12% compared to a good 2007/8. Last season the high altitude domain benefited from skiers deserting lower ski areas.

Le Tourmalet (Bareges/la Mongie) had turnover of 13 755 000 € an increase of 1.4% over 2005/6. However turnover at Piau-Engaly Piau was down 8 % compared to 2007-2008.

November in the Jura
November in the Jura

Massive snowfall in Corsica

The tiny island of Corsica saw the best snow conditions for 30 years. The area has only a handful of tiny ski areas but offers some excellent ski touring. The region had some of the most substantial snowfall in France. At the start of May there still over 4 meters of snow lying on the mountain tops and despite a Spring heatwave the snow only finally disappeared at the end of June.

Poll position for the Massif Central

The Massif Central increased turnover by 75% compared to last season. Taking a more representative five year period turnover was up 49%. Only the Jura, at 40%, came close. Ski touring in both areas was extremely good with the first skiable snows falling in October and lasting through to April.

The Southern Alps also had a good season with 13 million nights representing 780 million euros in revenue. The Hautes Alpes, with the major ski areas of Serre Chevalier (or Serre Chevalier Valley as it now likes to be known) had 7.8 million nights, an increase on last year which was already exceptional. The Hautes-Alpes had escaped the worst effects of the dry and warm 2007/8 winter.

Northern Alps Stable

Moving further north the Isere was 9% up on the 5 year average, this figure falling to 5% for the Haute-Savoie and 4% for the Savoie. As we have seen in previous years the excellent snow conditions down to low altitudes have been a boon to smaller resorts to the detriment of some of the larger, high altitude ski areas. In the Isere the low altitude domains close to the major urban centers of Lyon and Grenoble benefited from day trippers and good snow. Typical was les 7 Laux which was open for a record breaking 148 days. The first lift ran on the 30th of October 2008, possibly the earliest opening outside glacial resorts in Europe. Profits were up 28.8% on last year and skier/days were 6.8% up on the excellent 2006/7 season.

The European school holiday dates were unfavorable. March had no holiday period and figures were down. As examples the small domains of Cordon and Passy Plaine Joux above Sallances saw a 20% increase in turnover. Larger Megève saw a 6% increase in turnover and Grand Bornand 13%. Contrast this with Chamonix, which fell by nearly 6%.

Compagnie des Alpes sees red

Turnover at the Compagnie des Alpes (CdA), which runs most of France’s large ski areas, dipped 2.3% in the year to March compared to last year. 2007/8 was a record year for the group as extensive press coverage of a “snow drought” caused skiers to desert small ski areas for the group’s high altitude domains. In reality the picture lower down was nowhere near as bad as that portrayed in the press. Resorts such as Sommand and Grand Bornand in the Haute-Savoie actually extended their ski season and at the end of April 2008 had better snow conditions than at Val Thorens.

The CdA had an excellent end of season and believes that turnover on ski pass sales will still be up 1.7% for the season as a whole. A heat-wave (temperatures were 2C higher on the long term average) and snow at altitude helped their ski areas. April typically accounts 10% of total turnover for the season. The month also benefited from a late Easter holiday.

In explaining the relatively poor results the CdA blamed the ski world championships in the Espace Killy in February which they say cost them 3 Million euros and their reliance on British tourists. 20% of guests in CdA ski areas are British and a collapse in the value of the British pound meant they either stayed at home or didn’t go out much. Visitor numbers were around average compared to the last five years but with a drop of 2% on last season. However turnover per skier/day was up +4.1%. This must be due to the group selling more expensive lift passes, in particularly the Paradiski area pass. The la Plagne/les Arcs cable car link reopened at the start of the season. The group had some 4,000 extra beds available for this season, particularly in la Plagne so despite the spin is probably disappointed with the result.

The SNTF (Syndicat National des Téléphériques de France) says that overall there were 2% more visitors to ski areas and they believe that the 2005/6 record of 56 million skier/days will be broken. Occupancy ran at a very good 50-75% throughout the season. Apart from the Massif-Central occupancy rates were better during Christmas than the February winter holiday period with January and March above average.

The number of foreign guests was stable especially over Christmas and February but British skiers were replaced by other nationalities. There was a shift to last minute booking and short stays. Demand for ski schools, cross country skiing and other winter sports activities all increased. Restaurant turnover was down in the Haute-Savoie and Savoie but increased elsewhere.


It seems that the large Savoie ski area’s policy of extracting every holiday penny out of cash rich British tourists finally reached its limits. British skiers were hit by the double whammy of a recession and a pound that has devalued 30% over 12 months. Serious skiers still took their winter trip but cut back on weekend breaks and eating out.

As is normal in good snow years smaller, better value resorts benefit, especially if the weather is poor. However the results of the CdA have to set in the context of good February weather, an increase in turnover per skier for the group and an increase in turnover for the Haute-Savoie / Savoie as a whole. The worldwide recession looks set to impact 2010 so can skiers expect frozen or even reduced lift pass prices for next season? It doesn’t seem likely as the Trois Vallées have already announced an overall 3% increase.

The French Governments’ long awaited reduction on VAT rates from 19.6% to 5.5% should cut the costs of eating out depending on how widely it is applied. Massif Central based “la Montagne” newspaper has suggested that only a third of establishments have passed on the full cut with many reducing only selected items such as coffee or the plat du jour. For self-drive visitors to France the semi-privatized autoroutes have been hiking prices well above inflation over the last few years.

Further Information

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 26 July, 2009 at 12:35 PM

Good work, appreciated. I believe the season went well for our small local area “La Grande Terche” in the Haute Savoie, thanks to the good snow and long season.

Posted by endlessride on  Tuesday, 28 July, 2009  at 07:18 PM
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