A paper in “Nature Climate Change” explores the impact of climate change on European ski tourism and concludes that, without snowmaking, 53% and 98% of the 2,234 ski resorts studied in 28 European countries are projected to be at very high risk for snow supply under global warming of 2 °C and 4 °C, respectively. Assuming a snowmaking fractional coverage of 50% leads to corresponding proportions of 27% and 71%, but with increasing water and electricity demand (and related carbon footprint) of snowmaking.
The implications for many Alpine communities is quite stark. Summer tourism will become more critical to their sustainability. Typically many close down for visitors in Spring and Autumn, but the loss of a winter season may make many choose to try and extend their Summer season.
For skiers and snowboarders, this will mean that higher resorts will attract more visitors, but presumably this will drive up prices. And it will hardly contribute to reducing the carbon footprint.
In truth the golden age of ski package holidays has gone. Fewer people make this choice for their winter holidays and the demographic of those who do is aging.
Back in the early days of winter sports tourism, people took the train to the Alps and, without lifts and pistes, would walk up the mountains and ski down through unprepared snow.
In an age of climate change, it is likely that the future of skiing will lie with ski touring and ski mountaineering. If this is your bag, or you have an interest, I recommend you consider joining the Eagle Ski Club, a UK-based club whose members are devoted to these sports and provide the means to begin participating in them.
And remember to take the train! There is a list of Alpine resorts with railway stations: at the Snow and Rail website.
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.
It is probably of no surprise to anyone that France is the most probable destination for British skiers and snowboarders, and that Austria then Italy would come next. You only have to look at the choice of destinations on ski holiday web sites and in the few remaining published brochures to see that this is the case.
More concrete evidence comes from various sources, such as the Ski Club of Great Britain’s consumer surveys, the survey from 2019 reproduced above. This shows that France is regularly visited by more skiers and snowboarders than all of the next nine countries in the top 10 combined.
Switzerland is the fourth most popular destination, although clearly a lot of skiers and snowboarders have it on their bucket list to have a winter holiday there at least once, since nearly as many visitors seem to have visited Switzerland as France.
Switzerland was once the pre-eminent ski resort for UK visitors. The earliest winter sports resorts were established in the late Nineteenth Century in a dozen or so Swiss mountain communities, and for the first half of the Twentieth Century, Switzerland dominated winter sports tourism – although resorts such as Chamonix, St Anton and Kitzbühel were well established. As late as 1957 the Ski Club of Great Britain’s publication “Ski Notes & Queries” provided reports from 25 resorts, all but 6 of which were in Switzerland. However, things were changing at this time with a massive expansion in lift capacity throughout the Alps, and notably the “Three Valleys” in France which expanded from modest beginnings in 1945 to largely the terrain we know today by 1971.
The relative decline in British skiers visiting Switzerland occurred following the end of the gold standard and the oil crisis in the 1970s when the Swiss Franc was widely adopted as reserve currency. A skier going to Switzerland in the winter of 1974/5 would have got six francs for every pound; today the currencies are nearing parity. Inevitably many skiers over the years since have chosen the more affordable resorts of France, Austria and Italy.
An indicator of the changing popularity of Alpine nations for winter sports comes from the 2001 “Where to Ski and Snowboard” book which listed 29 resorts in France, 21 in Austria, 17 from Switzerland and 14 in Italy. The Inghams catalogue of package ski holidays from 2017/18 lists 53 pages of hotels in Austria, 53 in France, 35 in Italy and only 21 in Switzerland.