Swiss get piste off with skiing

Ski resorts will have to do more than pull a rabbit out of their hat to attract children. Schweiz Tourismus By-Line/swiss-image.ch

The Swiss are losing interest in skiing and, in the country that spawned winter tourism, a national crisis is brewing.

This content was published on February 4, 2005 - 14:16

Controversial proposals by an influential hotel owner to halt the slide of skiing’s popularity have added fuel to the heated debate on an ailing winter pastime.

Peter Bodenmann, a former president of the Social Democratic Party who owns a hotel in the town of Brig, set off the fireworks last month by suggesting restructuring resorts to make the sport more attractive.

He listed ten reasons why Switzerland as a tourist destination is too expensive, and recommended radical measures to significantly slash prices.

Bodenmann wasn’t talking into a vacuum, but responding to some sobering statistics presented at the start of the current ski season.

At the time, the national tourist board tried to put a positive spin on the fact that 38 per cent of the Swiss planned to take a ski holiday this season.

But it failed to point out that the majority preferred to stay at home or head south to warmer climes to spend their vacations.

Significant drop

At the same press conference, the Swiss Cable Car Association said the Swiss are skiing less frequently, with a significant drop of five per cent over the past five years.

Studies show that skiers are also getting older. On average, their age has risen from 30 to 38 since 1990.

And the dwindling interest comes at a time when members of the national ski team have been putting in mediocre performances on the World Cup circuit.

The world is a very different place to what it was a couple decades ago, when, according to a popular Swiss song, “Everybody skis”(Alles fahrt Schi).

Since Bodenmann spoke out, parliamentary commissions have met behind closed doors, and everybody - and anybody - responsible for running the smallest of ski lifts to the largest of resorts have had their say on the matter.

The most controversial of the Brig hotelier’s recommendations was that ski resorts should restructure themselves along the lines of low-cost airlines.

easyJet

He said resorts could, like companies such as easyJet, increase occupancy rates - and thus turnover - by offering lower prices.

This could be done by forcing all hotel and holiday apartment owners to purchase seasonal ski passes, which would then be supplied to their guests at a price based on demand.

People heading to the slopes on a weekday for example would pay less than skiers arriving on a busy weekend or during the February high season.

Most insiders say Bodenmann’s ideas are either impossible to implement or too radical but at the very least, they have provoked a heated debate on how to get the Swiss back on skis again.

They also agree that no one has been able to fill the financial void left by the cantons when they slashed subsidies for school ski camps.

Ski camps

Many schoolchildren were introduced to the sport through these camps but today, according to the association of ski and snowboard schools, up to 80 per cent of 14-year-olds living in urban areas have never skied.

Martin Nydegger, the tourism director in Scuol, a resort in canton Graubünden, says the resorts themselves should organise and run these camps, to ensure they have a future customer base.

Nydegger has also told the industry that they must focus some of their marketing efforts on youngsters from immigrant families whose parents have never skied. These families have on average more children than the Swiss do.

After its last meeting, the parliamentary tourism commission said it wanted to see school boards spread out the weeklong winter break over three months instead of just the one – February.

The commission said this would level out prices and ensure hotel beds are also occupied in the normally slow months of January and March.

Ski for free

While Bodenmann believes his approach would reduce the average price of a day’s ski pass to SFr20 ($17), Urs Kamber, who heads the Lucerne tourism office, would rather see children up to 12 years of age skiing for free.

Kamber adds this would be similar to a successful model used in Austria where children up to eight can ski a whole season for €10 (SFr15.60).

The director of the Cable Car Association, Peter Vollmer, disagrees that passes are too expensive. He says a better solution would be for lift companies to offer more all-in-one packages, removing the hassle from skiing.

He suggests a pass for skiers that includes the cost of hiring ski gear at a special rate.

He also says the trend towards lift company mergers must continue in order to reduce costs and improve marketing.

In Bodenmann’s view, resorts should resemble “luxury cruise ships in the Alps”.

“Unfortunately, we can’t do away with existing resorts and start over from scratch, even though that would make economic sense,” he concluded.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The Swiss ski five per cent less than they did five years ago.
The average age of a skier has risen from 30 to 38 since 1990.
Many ideas are being tabled to make skiing more attractive for youth.

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