Unseasonably warm weather and a general downward trend in the number of young skiers led to a sharp decline in business for Swiss ski resorts in January and February. The industry is investing in better infrastructure to attract new clients from near and far.
Overall, the number of ski resort visitors dropped 11.6% in February compared to the previous year, according to a report in the SonntagsZeitung newspaper, and January numbers fell 11.1%. Cantons Graubünden and Valais suffering the worst fallout with 13% and 16% declines, respectively, and skiers in canton Bern dropped 10%. Only Ticino, which experienced record snows this winter, saw a small increase in February visitors.
Ski areas can usually at least count on peak visitor numbers during canton-wide school ski weeks, but this year, the pistes stayed largely empty even during canton Zurich’s ski break. Strong wind storms and high temperatures in the Alps were partially to blame, but fewer and fewer cantons continue to offer school ski breaks and classroom ski camps, once a part of nearly every Swiss child’s upbringing, are quickly disappearing.
In the last 10 years, the number of 14 to 19-year-olds who consider themselves skiers or snowboarders fell by 3%, and by 8% in the 20 to 29 age group. And, the number of school ski camps offered dropped by 13% between 2005 and 2012. Last week, an attempt by parliamentarian Matthias Aebischer of Bern to introduce a mandatory snow sport day in schools failed to pass the Senate.
Banking on investments
In order to combat falling tourism numbers, resorts are choosing to invest in new infrastructure and must also sometimes raise prices to combat falling profits. The SonntagsZeitung concluded that some resorts must have raised prices last year, since the number of visits did not match the profits.
“I believe we have to invest, or the downward trend won’t be able to be reversed,” Swiss Tourism president Jürg Schmid told the paper.
Ski resorts aren’t hesitating to answer the call: the Jungfrau region, which has seen a record number of visitors from Asia but whose ski tourism has suffered, is pumping CHF200 million ($228 million) into a new cable car project. And the Lenzerheide-Arosa, St Moritz and Gstaad ski areas – among many others – are investing multi-millions of francs into giving their facilities a facelift.
According to Schmid, the investments are the right way to go despite falling profits – he points to the example of Lenzerheide-Arosa, where after a CHF50 million investment into a new cable car linking the two ski regions, the area reported positive visitor numbers in February.
What else can save the Swiss ski industry, which Schmid called “too big to fail” for the small communities that rely on it? Tourists from China and the Near East, who he says have great potential to turn things around for resorts.
“We’re doing everything we can to bring the Chinese onto the slopes,” said Schmid, citing an upcoming winter sports conference being held in Graubünden next week that will include the 20 largest Chinese tour operators.