Economic Impact of Climate Change on Ski resorts

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.

NE USA Resorts marked in blue that will not be viable by 2040

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.

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Ski Industry Analysis

There’s a Swiss guy called Laurent Vanat who does comprehensive analysis of ski industry trends every year. The data from 2021/2 is illuminating:

Ski Numbers have bounced back from the Pandemic

The Bounce-back is most pronounced in the USA

The USA has by far the most expensive lift passes

The Industry is concentrating

Small resorts make up 87% of resorts but only 26% of attendances.

The previous year report is available here.

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You can be forgiven for not having come across Maloja as a ski destination, but it was once once of the most feted resorts in the world.

The heart of Maloja for the visiting winter tourists was the Palace Hotel, built in 1884 and equipped with emerging technological advances such as electricity and elevators. It is still in operation today, but its hay day was between the world wars.

Maloja was host to many ski races, such as the 1929 British Ski Championship. It was also a centre for ski touring around the Engadine. The still very active UK-based Eagle Ski Club, which specialises in ski touring and ski mountaineering, was founded at the Maloja Palace Hotel in 1925.

So why have you never heard of Maloja?

The main reason is that it only has a 2km piste served by a solitary surface lift. At the height of its popularity ski runs were neither pisted nor lift- served. The nearby resort of St Moritz was well established and, as ski tourism developed in the area, its better facilities, access and higher runs dominated winter sports activity in the area.

The Maloja Palace also suffered declining fortunes and lost its allure compared to the hotels of other Engadine resorts, such as St Moritz, Celerina and Pontresina – all of which are easier to get to from the UK and Northern Europe.

Maloja was also popular when winter sports represented a very different set of activities than occurred after World War 2. For generations of skiers from the 1950s onwards, the only winter sport they were likely to participate in was a form of skiing dominated by lift-served downhill slopes with prepared surfaces, increasingly at giant, linked ski areas. For Britons, this coincided with increasingly affordable air tickets and package holidays, and a consequent burgeoning interest in winter holidays.

Very unlike the winter sports scene before World War 2.

In the twenties and thirties skiing was at the heart of many controversies. One concerned ski racing, where there was divided opinion between Alpine nations, Britain and the Nordics over the validity of different competitive disciplines. Many purists also decried the introduction of mechanical lits and prepared pistes. Essentially the early development of recreational skiing was associated primarily with something akin to a mixture of cross country skiing, ski touring and ski mountaineering, whilst winter walks, skating and tobogganing were available for the less adventurous winter tourists.

Despite its failure to matchthe expectations of most skiers, Maloja remains popular for ski touring and its cross-country ski trails. It also marks the start of the Engadin Skimarathon, which attracts thousands of enthusiasts every March.

Above Maloja, rain falling on the Pass Lunghin drains into the Adriatic, Black and North Seas.
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Best Ski Resorts?

A common question amongst winter sports enthusiasts is: what is the best ski resort in the world? Of course there is no correct answer, but many column inches have been dedicated to the question, including on this blog! The Daily Torygraph, which for all its political failings does a good job of covering winter sports, analysed what its readers researched and came up with the following list:

  1. St Anton, Austria
  2. Chamonix, France
  3. Courmayeur, Italy
  4. Les Deux Alpes, France
  5. Val Thorens, France
  6. Les Arcs, France
  7. Morzine, France
  8. La Plagne, France
  9. Val d’Isère, France
  10. Cervinia, Italy
  11. Tignes, France
  12. Mayrhofen, Austria
  13. Zermatt, Switzerland
  14. Méribel, France
  15. Alpe d’Huez, France
  16. Courchevel, France
  17. Kitzbühel, Austria
  18. Lech, Austria
  19. Obergurgl, Austria
  20. Flaine, France

It is an interesting list, dominated by French resorts, perhaps addressing a certain demographic’s idea of what is a good package holiday destination. Nowhere from North America? No Wengen. No Cortina. No Borovets for the budget conscious? Morzine over Avoriaz? Nonetheless a selection of resorts you can’t fault. Not my list though.

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