Ski resorts begin uphill climb

The new Lauchernalp cable car should increase capacity at the resort by up to 20 per cent

The new ski season has opened in the Swiss Alps amid a rash of mergers, expansions and announcements of major projects.

This content was published on December 3, 2003 - 17:33

Global warming and declining popularity for the sport are forcing many resorts to reassess their future.

A report published on Tuesday by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) warned that up to half of Switzerland's ski resorts could face economic hardship or bankruptcy because of global warming.

The economic importance of alpine resorts to Switzerland was underlined by the presence of several high-ranking politicians last Saturday at the unveiling of a new cable car in the small canton Valais resort of Lauchernalp.

Adolf Ogi, the United Nations special adviser on sport and former Swiss cabinet minister, cut the ribbon to officially open the new cable car.

The new high-speed lift takes skiers from 2,700 metres above sea level, previously the highest point in Lauchernalp, to 3,100m where they can ski down a glacier.

It makes Lauchernalp the fifth-highest ski region in the Swiss Alps, giving it an important competitive edge, since its 25 kilometres of groomed slopes pale alongside Switzerland’s big resorts.

For example, Zermatt and Verbier have around 400km. A recent merger of cable car companies in and around Davos has created a ski area with 320km of pistes.

Carrying hopes

The livelihoods of everyone in Lauchernalp's surrounding villages depend directly or indirectly on the resort, so the new lift is seen as a key investment.

“Without ski lifts, there would be no work here, so people would be forced to leave the valley,” said Peter Vollmer, president of the Swiss Cable Car Association.

In Vollmer’s opinion, ten to 20 per cent of ski resorts will disappear over the next decade.

Hans-Ruedi Müller, head of the Research Institute for Leisure and Tourism at the University of Bern, puts a different spin on what is a bleak picture.

“Only ten or 12 [out of an estimated 230 ski resorts] still have potential for growth. The others will stagnate,” he told swissinfo.

But recent investment in new infrastructure is proof that resorts are starting to wake up to the realities of the 21st century.

The popularity of skiing in the Swiss Alps has been in decline since it reached a peak in the late 1980s, and global warming has forced resorts like Lauchernalp to climb higher to ensure good snow conditions.

Big is best

The move towards bigger and higher ski areas has also produced a planned merger to connect three resorts, two in central Switzerland and another in the Bernese Oberland.

The proposal calls for the construction of nine new lifts to connect the Bernese Oberland resort of Meiringen-Hasliberg with Melchsee Frutt in canton Obwalden and Engelberg-Titlis in canton Lucerne.

“We believe only big resorts can survive,” said Albert Wyler, managing director of the Titlis cable car company at a news conference last week to announce the merger.

He will have to overcome fierce opposition from environmentalists opposed to the construction of any new infrastructure, especially since most of the new lifts will be in fragile high-alpine areas.

The proposed lifts will be built between 1,800m and 2,500m above sea level.

Reliable snow

That height is necessary in order to transport skiers over mountain ridges from one resort to the next, but also to get them above the critical level for reliable snow conditions - currently 1,300m, according to Unep.

"Climate change will have the effect of pushing more and more winter sports higher and higher up the mountains," said Rolf Bürki, an economic geographer at the University of Zurich who led the research behind the Unep report.

"As ski resorts in lower altitudes face bankruptcy, so the pressure in highly environmentally sensitive upper-altitude areas rises, along with the pressures to build new ski lifts and other infrastructure."

The infrastructure required to create the new resort, Hasliberg-Titlis, will cost upwards of SFr60 million ($47 million), if the backers of the plan win support for the project.

The bigger the resort – or the grander the plans – the easier it is to secure the capital for new investments.

The Unep report revealed that several low-lying Swiss resorts were already having problems getting bank loans.

Weak link

Hotels, however, could prove to be the weak link in the industry’s long-term plans. The majority in alpine resorts are family-owned businesses that are too small to be able to secure loans to upgrade and improve standards.

Many are badly in need of renovation, yet their prices are still higher than modern and similarly classed hotels in Austrian, French or Italian resorts.

Bringing them up to scratch and making them price competitive could be the biggest challenge facing Swiss ski resorts.

Jerun Vils, director of the Lötschberg tourist region, which includes Lauchernalp, admits that the goal is not necessarily to attract more skiers but to get them to stay longer.

“We are not planning on building new hotels or apartments but to improve occupancy rates,” he said.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Lauchernalp

Key facts

Switzerland has more than 500 cable car companies.
It is estimated that only one-third are profitable.
On average, the winter season accounts for 70-80% of turnover in Swiss alpine resorts.
About 11,000 people are employed by the lift companies.

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In brief

Swiss cable car companies are optimistic about the new winter season, buoyed by an increase in turnover in 2003, having seen a rise in sales of day passes and single tickets.

The increase was largely due to excellent snow conditions last winter and this summer’s record temperatures.

Swiss hotels did not benefit: the number of overnight stays dropped 3.3% this summer over 2002, or more than 6% below the average for the past five years.

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