I read some articles recently in the academic press on the impact of global warming on ski resort economies. The value of winter sports to Alpine nations is substantial – one study reckoned that roughly half of overnight stays in Austria and Switzerland are attributable to winter tourism. I am sceptical of their claim that is over the whole year, but together with associated economic activity, skiing is clearly a major source of tourist revenue for Alpine nations.
One study of a German ski area, expected the impact of global warming by 2040 to be as much as 30% fewer skiers and a hit of up to 56% on the local economy, exacerbated by an aging skier demography. The study used estimates of what it called the “100 day rule” and the “Christmas rule”.
A study of 208 ski areas in Austria is more positive, citing snowmaking capacity and adaptive in-season demand as factors in mitigating climate change, This study estimated an average season length losses being 10-16% through until the 2050s. However the study recognises that the impact will be disproportionate with lower resorts inevitably the most hard hit.
Some of the literature identifies mitigation strategies. A paper on the impact for package holiday tourists came up with these conclusions: “winter mountain holidaying is a highly segmented market. Even at a mountain destination strongly associated with skiing, there are many tourists who do not ski and spend their time doing something else”. Eating and drinking figure highly, particularly enjoying local cuisines.
Swiss resorts in particular have an advantage for retaining winter tourists even if there is unreliable snow. Many Swiss resorts have charm and history. Additionally many benefit from higher altitude and a range of winter activities that don’t require snow, – such as ice-skating, curling and spas. Events like Arosa Gay Week and the WEF at Davos illustrate examples of where skiing may not be the main focus for winter sports destinations, and people still find value in their visit to the mountains even if it does not provide an extensive skiing experience with any reliability.
The Daily Telegraph, writing on the acquisition of ski resorts in Europe by Vail Resorts, drew up this list of comparisons between North American and European skiing.
Holidaymakers have the choice of a condo-style, self-catered apartment, or a hotel. Expect even the smallest rooms to be massive by European standards.
While continental Europeans have always preferred hotels, catered chalets – a dying breed post-Brexit – are still a firm British favourite. There are increasing self-catered options, but to American eyes, the classic French apartment, with bunk beds in the hallway and a sofa bed in the lounge, looks more rabbit hutch than holiday home. Edit value
Thanks in part to the Epic/Ikon business model, lift pass prices in the US are sky-high if you pay on the day. If you’re going skiing often, and especially if you’re travelling to different resorts, one of the multi-resort passes – which cost around $1,000 (£790) for the season – offers impressive value for money.
Day pass prices have soared recently, but the savings on week-long holiday passes are still significant. Season-long passes are pricier than their US equivalents, and only really worth it for seasonaires or those living close to a resort.
You know those ralentir/langsam/ “slow” signs that everyone blithely ignores in France? Do that in the States and you might find ski patrol confiscating your lift pass. Not only are rules more strictly enforced, but lift queues are also more politely observed, with staff matching up groups to maximise capacity.
The European approach to health and safety tends to be a little more laissez-faire. On the plus side, you’re also less likely to end up facing a lawsuit. Queue etiquette is often governed by who has the sharpest elbows.
US ski resorts tend to be on private land and owned by one of two large companies. Vail Resorts owns 37 across the United States and Canada, including big names like Whistler and Heavenly Lake Tahoe. The Alterra Mountain Company owns 17. Small operations still exist, but increasingly, they’re disappearing.
In most European ski resorts, the land is owned by the municipal government, which then grants licences to lift operators. There are big lift owners, like France’s Compagnie des Alpes which runs 10 resorts, including Val d’Isere, Tignes, and La Plagne, but none approaching the dominance of the US duopoly.
Expect pitchers of craft beer, plates of cheese-laden nachos, and a well-drilled covers band banging through all-American classics like Free Bird or Wagon Wheel. Fun, but usually pretty well-ordered. Skiing drunk is usually frowned upon.
France’s Folie Douce bars – and the drunken end-of-day ski down afterwards – would never be allowed in the States, but when it comes to proper après parties, no one beats the Austrians. If you’ve not danced on a table to the awful accordion remix of Take Me Home, Country Roads while drinking the medical-grade ethanol they sell as “schnapps”, have you really been skiing?
Almost all US ski resorts have “in-bounds” backcountry areas that remain un-groomed but are otherwise just like pistes. They’re safe, and controlled for avalanches, but often crowded on powder days. Duck beneath the ropes into the “out of bounds” areas and you’re on your own.
Anything that’s not groomed in Europe is off-piste, and ridden at your own risk, but the pisteurs will still secure the area closest to the pistes for avalanches. Search and rescue won’t discriminate if you venture beyond that, either.
Many US resorts are essentially company towns, where everything – from the ski schools to the bars and restaurants, to the bulk of the accommodation – is owned by the same corporate entity.
European resorts tend to be made up of a mix of independent businesses – family-run hotels and restaurants rubbing shoulders with the occasional bigger chain.
Seven differences between skiing in North America and Europe
Do you agree?
I’ve skied a dozen or so resorts in North America, and dozens in Europe. I’ve enjoyed them all, but Europe edges it for me with it’s cute villages and variety of cultures – both the local cultures and that of the visitors.
One big difference I saw between the two is that in the USA skiers don’t always put down the safety bar on chair lifts. Could never figure that out and never got round to asking.
I find the MySwitzerland site in equal measures useful and frustrating. The way the information is presented is largely intended as brochure-ware, and it is not always easy to find hard data or anything in great detail. Over the years I have tried to incorporate MySwitzerland content into https://www.swisswintersports.co.uk/ and have previously had some success, but changes of personnel and changes in the rules have now limited me to simply providing links to content at MySwitzerland, or scraping the site, rather than having it fully incorporated dynamically with the content.
Vail Resorts has announced it is acquiring the Crans-Montana ski resort for $136m.
In a press release the company said:
Vail Resorts announced today that it has entered into an agreement to acquire Crans-Montana Mountain Resort in Switzerland from CPI Property Group (“CPIPG”).
Crans-Montana Mountain Resort is a top ski destination in the heart of the Swiss Alps, offering breathtaking views of the Matterhorn and the Mont Blanc, and has been recognized as one of the best ski resorts in Europe.
Vail Resorts will have an 84% stake in the lift company, Remontées Mécaniques Crans Montana Aminona (CMA) SA, 80% in SportLife AG, which operates one of the ski schools located in the resort and 100% of 11 mountain restaurants.
The valuation for the resort operations is expected to be almost CHF 120 million, with a earnings (EBITDA) of CHF 5 million in the first full year of operation .
Crans-Montana will be included in the Epic Ski pass but is not included in the Magic Pass.
Vail Resorts owns 55% of Andermatt Swiss Alps AG, as well as 37 ski resorts in North America and 3 in Australia.
It acquired the stake in Andermatt in August 2022. In a news release at the time, the company stated that the “final purchase price of CHF 149 million will be fully reinvested into the resort, with CHF 110 million allocated for use in capital investments to enhance the guest experience on the mountain and CHF 39 million paid to ASA (which retained 40% ownership) and reinvested into the real estate developments in the base area.”