End of Season Ski Report – Switzerland

I haven’t seen any figures yet, but I imagine this winter season will be one of the better ones for winter sports participation in Switzerland.

Nicholas Oatridge in Villars

And it’s not over yet! Although many resorts closed after the Easter weekend, the snow is better than I can recall it this late in the season. I am currently skiing Villars-Gryon and the depth of snow is staggering. No bare patches to speak of – even the resort run into Villars is pleasantly skiable at the end of the day. Although there are Spring ski conditions the pistes have been excellently groomed and, without the Easter crowds, the pistes are staying in good condition throughout the day.

Many resorts have held their end-of-season bashes in the assumption the snow would have gone. Villars held theirs over Easter, but plan to stay open until 15th April. My sense is that they could well stay open longer, but with so many skiers calling time on the season it is probably uneconomical.

Crans-Montana

Indeed one resort I was hoping to get to before the end of the season, Crans-Montana, unexpectedly closed all the lifts on 2nd April. With a glacier and some seriously high runs, Crans-Montana is often one of the last resorts to close, despite its largely South-facing slopes. It had over 4 metres of snow at the top and all runs open when, in what can only be described as as a fit of pique, the lift operators closed all lifts because of a dispute with local municipalities.

In an open letter , Philippe Magistretti, chairman of the ski lifts, announced the immediate closure of the Crans-Montana Aminona ski area, citing a failure of the municipalities to honour an 800,000 Franc deal.

In response, the municipalities say that the breach of which they are accused is part of an agreement “still under negotiation between all the parties involved” and “vehemently reject” Mr Magistretti’s remarks.

They go on to say that “the priority of the Communities is to minimize the negative consequences of this decision on tourists,” and are providing a free bus service to nearby Anzère. Now I like Anzère a lot, but it is a more modest, and lower, resort.

Needless to say local businesses feel they have been let down so a lot of bad blood is likely to ensue.

And I won’t be going to Crans-Montana this season.

Regrettably Saas-Fee is only planning to stay open 15th April, despite it’s altitude. Verbier and Samnaun/Ischgl, however, will be open until the end of the month, and Glacier3000, St Moritz, Engelberg and Andermatt plan to stay open into May. Zermatt is theoretically an all-year resort but has already started closing some lifts, but I’ve known the valley run from Furi open well into May so I am optimistic it will be for some weeks yet.

STOP PRESS: Crans Montana has re-opened as of 6th April – although only until the official end of season on 17th April. Wouldn’t it be nice if they extended it a few days to make up for the closure?

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Cross-country Downhill – crossing borders

I’m not talking here about Nordic or back-country skiing, but downhill skiing between two countries. In other words take a lift in the morning in one country, and have lunch in another.
Rougemont
There are a number of resorts where you can ski from one country to another (and back), but not surprisingly they are all in Europe.

Perhaps the most famous is the Matterhorn Ski Paradise which links Switzerland and Italy. Zermatt lies at the foot of the ski area on the Swiss side and Breuil Cervinia lies across the Italian border, with the majestic Matterhorn standing over both of them. Cervinia is cheap and cheerful, Zermatt not only provides the best views of the Matterhorn it is possibly the most complete ski resort in the world (and one of the more expensive).

The Silvretta Ski Arena bridges Switzerland & Austria, and there are even border control posts on the piste – although I have never seen them manned. Duty-free Samnaun lies on the Swiss side whilst the party town of Ischgl is in Austria.
Ischgl
Les Portes du Soleil is a huge sprawling resort between France & Switzerland, with o650km of piste. There are a whole bunch of ski resorts in the circuit, with Avoriaz and Morzine in France and Champéry in Switzerland amongst the more notable.

The Milky Way between France & Italy is not quite as big, but with 410km of piste is still one of the largest ski areas in the world. Montgenèvre lies in France, whilst across the border in Italy are Clavière, Cesana, Torinese, Sestrière, Pragelato, San Sicario and Sauze d’Oulx.

Espace San Bernardo links La Rosière in France with La Thuile in Italy.

Kanin-Bovec-Sella Nevea is one of the newer cross border resorts, linking Italy and Slovenia.

Nassfeld-Lake Pressegger is a little known resort in Carinthia, but it has 100km of piste and has runs that cross the Austrian border into Italy, and it is possible to have lunch on the Italian side of the border.

Not strictly speaking a cross-border resort but a section of Gstaad Mountain Rides links the Swiss German part of Switzerland with the French-speaking part, crossing the Röstigraben. So it is possible to take up a lift from Rougemont to the La Videmanette ski area from where you ski or snowboard down to Chalberhöni and Gstaad.

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No Snow (or not very much)!

Les Crosets

After a promising early season, there has been a very warm November (one of the warmest on record) and virtually no snowfall in Switzerland for over a fortnight. There is also little prospect of snow in the next ten days. The warm weather has particularly hit lower slopes, with virtually no resort runs open anywhere. Of the leading Swiss resorts, Verbier looks one of the better destinations and Les Diablerets has fared reasonably well. Samnaun and Zermatt have the most lifts open. Feldberg, in the Black Forest, looks a long way from opening.

Les Diablerets

The situation doesn’t look much better anywhere else in Europe. Sunny, relatively warm days characterise Alpine resorts, with the best of the snow in the Pyrenees. North America is doing better, with distinctly chilly temperatures and good snow cover in most leading resorts.

There is expected to be new snow before Christmas. Whether it is enough for resorts to fully open in time for the holiday season, we will just have to wait and see.

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The World’s Most Popular Ski Resorts

Skiers in the AlpsA topic of conversation amongst most skiers and snowboarders at one time or another is which is the best ski resort in the world. Of course, there is no clear definition of what constitutes the best, but there is one man who has established which are the world’s most popular ski resorts.

Laurent Vanat publishes an epic “International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism” every year (see http://www.vanat.ch/). This comprehensively researched report is fascinating, not least for the ranking of ski resorts.

One of the more interesting conclusions he draws this year is that winter sports are in decline in the traditional markets. Switzerland has seen almost a 20% reduction in skier days since 2004, a figure perhaps not so surprising give the strength of the Swiss Franc. However even the USA, Canada and Italy have started to slump in the last few years. Austria and France have been the major beneficiaries of people choosing alternative destinations, but even these have seen a decline in the last couple of years and have grown barely 5% in the last ten years.

The situation is mitigated by the explosive growth of skiing in China and some other emerging markets. In a separate report Laurent reports that China now has over five hundred ski resorts from a base of only a dozen twenty years ago.

Laurent attributes the relative decline of interest in winter sports, at least in part, to the failure of teaching techniques to adapt. He may have a point. Traditionally most skiers tend to give up the sport by their 60s, but the replacement rate is dictated by a number of factors. If the first experience of winter sports is unsatisfactory, it is hard to get people to give up their valuable holiday time and money to do it again. When I came through Gatwick in the middle of the ski season earlier this year I was struck by the overwhelming number of flights to and from winter sun destinations compared to ski resorts, and the demographic of the passengers reflected that an aging population is not going to benefit the winter sports industry.

Laurent’s report goes on to state that there are now around 66 countries that can be said to provide at least basic opportunities for lift-assisted, outdoor downhill skiing, around 20 others that provide indoor skiing facilities and 15 that have some snow coverage for at least some of the year and which, technically, could be skiable. By his estimate there are around 2000 ski resorts worldwide, with 35% in the Alps, 12% elsewhere in Western Europe, 21% in America, 13% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and 19% in East Asia. China’s rise as a skiing super-power is offset in Asia by Japan’s relative decline.

Laurent uses the number of days the slopes are visited as the basis for estimating skier numbers. Only 44 resorts receive more than one million skier visits in a typical winter season and top of the list as the world’s most popular ski resort is… La Plagne! The top ten reads like this:

  1. La Plagne (France)
  2. Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang (Austria)
  3. Skiwelt Wilder Kaiser-Brixental (Austria)
  4. Les Arcs (France)
  5. Ischgl/Samnaun Silvretta Arena (Austria/Switzerland)
  6. Whistler Blackcomb (Canada)
  7. Alta Badia (Italy)
  8. Val Thorens – Orelle (France)
  9. Vail (USA)

Somewhat surprising to me is how different this list is compared with a list of the ten most extensive ski resorts given that skiers in poll after poll rate the extent of the ski terrain as the most important single factor – see here for most extensive.

Interestingly, only 20% of resorts account for 80% of skier visits with the Alps taking in 43% of all skier visits – more than double the number of skier visits in North America.

Top world resorts in millions of skier visits
Top world resorts in millions of skier visits

Ski culture is clearly most marked in countries with extensive ski facilities, but Germany and the UK have limited ski facilities but a large ski culture. The desinations of choice for the Germans are respectively Austria, Italy and Switzerland, whilst the Brits prefer France, then Austria and Italy. The Dutch contribute about 1 million ski visits each year, and choose Austria and France as their preferred destinations.

Surprisingly, more Swiss takes their ski holidays in Austria than Brits take in Italy. It puts some perspective on how far the strong Swiss franc is hurting the domestic tourist industry. However Switzerland, along with Austria and Norway, has over a quarter of the population active in winter sports. Although it doesn’t have any resorts in the top 20 most visited, I would have little difficulty placing at least half a dozen Swiss resorts in the best 20 in the world.

Of the approximately 400 million skier visits undertaken each season, around 20 million are from visits to the 43 indoor snow centres, half of which are in Western Europe.

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