High and dry: Alpine resorts grapple with climate change

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The prospect of searing heatwaves driving holidaymakers to cool mountains and children asking grandparents about their memories of snow is focusing minds in Alpine ski resorts on the implications of climate change.

With global warming widely expected to slash snowfall, especially at lower levels, the Swiss tourism industry is looking for ways to preserve a lucrative business brutally exposed to the weather.

Enter Napa, Serbia’s last circus bear.

The Arosa ski resort in eastern Switzerland has created a $6.5 million refuge hosting Napa and two other bears rescued from cages at restaurants in Albania to help draw summer visitors and reduce its reliance on skiers and snowboarders.

School classes, families and a group of army veterans celebrating an 80th birthday were visiting one recent summer day, helping the park towards what Arosa tourism director Pascal Jenny said was a target of 50,000 visitors this year.

Arosa has reinvented itself before - moving to winter tourism in the 1930s after decades as a health resort for tuberculosis patients. But with nearly 620,000 overnight stays in winter last year, more than three times the summer total -- it will not be easy.

Jenny, who fears a sharp decline in snowfall over the next 20 or 30 years, is hedging his bets.

“What gives us some hope is that artificial snow is making strong technical advances. I can make snow now at 5 degrees above freezing,” he said, standing on an observation platform beside the Weisshorn cable car which gives a sweeping view of the snow-capped Alpine valley.

His two-pronged approach highlights the dilemma faced by mountain resorts -- how to retain profits as they embark on what the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) says needs to be a global rethink of tourism.

“The consequences of climate change will be felt across the travel and tourism sector over the coming decades,” the OECD, whose member countries represent 80% of the world’s trade and investment, said in a 2018 study of megatrends in tourism.

Storms, flooding and tidal surges will threaten coastal regions, southern destinations face extreme heatwaves and northern ones will see shorter periods of snowfall, it said.

Arosa ski in Switzerland - Alps - AFP
Arosa ski in Switzerland - Alps - AFP

Mountain resorts tend to be higher in Switzerland than in Austria or France, giving them better chances as snow becomes scarcer.

But even at 3,000 meters, pistes could see snow depths more than halved by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, a report in The Cryosphere, a peer-reviewed geosciences journal named after the frozen water parts of the Earth, said.

Resorts below 1,200 meters - as about a quarter of Alpine ones are - might get almost no snow, said the 2017 report, whose title starts “How much can we save?”. Snow levels will gradually stabilize if global temperature rises are contained, it says.

Arosa is 1,775 meters up but Jenny worries that a loss of snow in the lowlands will cost it visitors because people will lose their emotional connection with snow.

“That is almost more dangerous for the sector,” he said.

Hence his interest in an industrial estate in Denmark, where Arosa is cooperating on a project to make artificial snow so that urban dwellers can learn to ski and then, he hopes, go on to hone their skills in the Alps.

The economics are clear: a daily lift pass for skiers in Arosa costs 79 Swiss francs($), while a summer hiker or mountain biker typically pays 18 francs for a pass that lets them use a rope park, a swimming area and paddle boats on the town’s lake.

Hotels and restaurants charge more in winter too, but the strong Swiss franc has priced many people out.

Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the Swiss government says the long-term outlook for tourism is healthy. “Mountain summers can position themselves as an alternative to the Mediterranean regions,” a 2017 report said.

Summer tourism already accounts for 60% of overnight stays across Switzerland, but the season brings in only 18 percent of revenue, said Therese Lehmann, an economist at the University of
Bern’s Centre for Regional Development.

Government data already shows a 24% drop in skiers in the decade to 2016, with other factors as well as climate change.

“The decline of ski tourism -- a powerful economic engine -- will have more of an impact than the additional revenue in summer,” said Dominik Siegrist, director of the Institute for Landscape and Open Space at Switzerland’s University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil.

Europe’s population is ageing and younger people are less interested in skiing. Snowshoeing, winter hiking, sledding and ski touring -- in which people hike up mountains, are on the increase, industry lobby Swiss Tourism says.

Consolidation of winter tourism is on the horizon, with overnight stays in bigger Swiss resorts up 1 percent in the decade to 2015, but down 17 percent in smaller ones.

“Lots of smaller ones are grasping at straws, trying to survive as long as they can because the valleys depend on this tourism,” Siegrist said.

Zermatt Switzerland AFP
Zermatt Switzerland AFP

Snow harvests, glacier coats

Large resorts in the Swiss cantons of the Grisons and Valais, Austria’s Tyrol province and France’s Savoie region have the marketing pull to survive, Siegrist said, listing high- altitude Andermatt, Zermatt and St Moritz in Switzerland.

The Andermatt Swiss Alps resort, in central Switzerland, is targeting cyclists in summer, and has also built new lifts to lure winter sports fans.

It covers a nearby glacier with strips of artificial fleece in spring to help reduce melting and creates piles of snow higher than houses to deploy on ski pistes as early as November to avoid having to use expensive artificial snow.

The strong Swiss franc has hit ski lifts focused on winter business from European visitors hard in the past 10 years, the government says, but the minority of lifts with strong summer business are booming thanks to visitors from overseas.

Many smaller lift firms get cheap loans and, increasingly, state subsidies to help balance the books, said Lehmann.

Roughly a third are debt-free, but depend on long-haul tourism, which she said was not ideal from an environmental point of view, because flights are a major contributor to holiday carbon emissions.

“Maybe we have to get away from focusing solely on growth, and promote Alpine areas as good habitats for living, not just for tourism,” she said.

Listed cable car companies Bergbahnen Engelberg Truebsee Titlis Bet AG and Jungfraubahn Holding AG, cite year-round visitors from Asia - especially China and India - as important sources of income.

Asked about sustainability, Titlis marketing director Peter Reinle said the firm’s prospects were good for the next 50 years. “We as a single entity can not solve the whole climate problem. Politicians have to provide framework conditions.”

Jungfraubahn’s Corporate Secretary Christoph Schlaeppi said it employed 800 local people, helping to make life in the mountains economically sustainable for a new generation.

The government says it is up to individual resorts to decide how much they want to attract Asian groups, but focuses its own promotion efforts on individual travellers and sustainability, noting Japanese tourists now come independently and stay longer.

“We have to see that guests from Asia making the long flight to Europe or Switzerland stay as long as possible,” Richard Kaempf, head of tourism policy at the State Secretariat of Economic Affairs, told Reuters.

While the government encourages year-round use of mountain infrastructure, he said it is not giving up on winter sports, a deep cultural touchstone for the Swiss. But he acknowledged the growing challenge of lowlanders losing the “winter feeling”.

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