PARIS, France (AFP) — The Alps have long made Europe the world's top skiing destination but the industry finds itself having to duck and weave through the daunting obstacles of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
The European ski industry generates 34 billion euros in revenue, half the world's total, according to Laurent Vanat, a Swiss expert who has for the past decade written an annual report that is the reference resource on the industry.
The soaring mountain range which stretches from France, along Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria and into Slovenia helps make Europe the leader in the ski industry.
The Alps alone hold "more than a third of the ski areas" of the whole world, says Vanat, and attract 43% of the world's skiers, more than double the 21% of the United States.
The European leaders are France and Austria which each boast more than 10 ski areas that attract more than a million visitors each per year, according to Vanat.
Big areas dominate
The industry is heavily concentrated in big ski areas. Resorts which receive more than 100,000 skiers per year represent "only 20 percent of ski areas but they account for 80% of skiers," said the Swiss expert.
Skiing is the most popular recreation in Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Austria, where more than 30% of the population strap on skis. But by absolute numbers, it is the Germans.
Skiing is a seasonal sport as few areas are high enough to boast summer snow, and few resorts have found the holy grail of year-round activities.
That makes the industry heavily reliant on seasonal labor, both for the slopes themselves and for the other businesses such as hotels and restaurants.
The trade association for French ski areas, Domaines Skiables de France, estimates that more than 120,000 jobs in the country are dependent upon the slopes opening.
Heavy lockdown bill
The ski industry has not escaped the coronavirus pandemic — an Austrian resort was an early superspreader site — and restrictions meant to slow its spread.
Vanat estimates that lockdowns that shut nearly all ski stations in mid-March resulted a drop of about 20% in terms of visitors on average.
That meant between 1.5 and 2.0 billion euros in missed revenue for France and Austria.
Melting glaciers, including in the Alps, are one of the most visible manifestations of climate change and this has helped drive a "real awareness these past years", according to Vincent Lalanne, head of the tourism office in Val Thorens, Europe's highest ski resort.
The Domaines Skiables de France announced last month the objective for its ski areas to become carbon neutral by 2037.
"Even if the lifts represent just two percent of the carbon impact of s station, we can't just stand idly by," said Sandra Picard, who heads up sustainable development at the Compagnie des Alpes which operates a number of ski areas in France.
Its resorts already use green electricity and at Serre-Chevalier they aim to produce up to 30% of the power it needs, she said.
Baby boomers slip off boots
Another major challenge, according to Vanat, is the "aging of the baby boomers, a generation which adored skiing" as that passion is not shared by younger generations.
Vanat acknowledges the industry "hasn't found a way to teach 21st century youths who don't want to spend three days of hell falling down before getting a taste of what skiing is like."
by Angélina BOULESTEIX
© Agence France-Presse
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