Alpine resorts scramble to beat warmer winters
Army conscripts used to be a common sight in Andermatt, practising parallel turns or perfecting climbing techniques in case they were needed to defend Switzerland’s mountain heart.
These days it is mainly local skiers schussing down the surrounding slopes and the town is better known for two things: the foil that covers a glacier to stop it melting in summer and a giant new luxury holiday resort.
Last winter was one of the warmest on record in the Alps and despite early snowfalls this year, resorts are planning alternatives to skiing, including several complex and ambitious projects to keep the cash coming even if the snow does not.
“Every destination that is likely to suffer from the effects of global warming during the coming years has to find strategies best suited to its assets and budget,” said Switzerland Tourism spokesperson Veronique Kanel.
Andermatt’s picture-perfect location at the foot of four passes attracted Egyptian magnate Samih Sawiris, who plans six hotels, a golf course, giant indoor tropical pool and spa, artificial beach and lakes.
Elsewhere in Switzerland, Zermatt plans a hotel on the summit of the Klein Matterhorn—a similar but smaller peak than the needle-sharp Matterhorn—boosting its height beyond 4Â 000m and prompting loud protests from environmental groups. Davos envisages a new hotel in a tower above the resort, while Crans-Montana and Verbier are both planning new luxury vacation resorts, as well as five-star hotels.
A year-round 7ha resort, including restaurants, bars, entertainment and shops, opened near Turin in time for the 2006 Winter Olympics, while developers in France recently announced plans for a 2Â 500-bed development at Flaine.
“Clearly it’s a survival strategy. Everybody has to be selfish if their industry is entirely dependent on attracting customers,” said Stuart Holt, a skier who lives in Luzern, near several resorts in central Switzerland.
Hansruedi Mueller, head of the Institute for Leisure and Tourism at Berne University, said there was competition among resorts to create bigger attractions, which could be dangerous because of their impact on natural scenery and resources.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of well-off visitors to Alpine ski stations in recent years, particularly from Russia, said Betony Garner, spokesperson for the Ski Club of Great Britain.
“The glitzy resorts are attracting more rich tourists,” Garner said.
“I guess these tourists will be attracted by new, plush facilities,” Garner said.
Andermatt was traditionally dependent on the Swiss army, which had its mountain training school there. But military cuts bit deep after the Cold War and the army sold 735Â 000 square metres of land to Orascom Hotels and Development, where Sawiris is chairperson, for 10-million Swiss francs ($8,96-million) in August 2006.
The “Andermatt Alpine Destination”—whose cost has not been disclosed—will give the town a much-needed shot in the arm and create 2Â 000 new jobs. The resort has the backing of the town but still needs final planning and environmental clearances.
“I hope we have success in the next few years in putting Andermatt on the map,” Sawiris said on a November visit to Switzerland.
While Orascom stresses Andermatt’s altitude and snow security—the town is nearly 1Â 500m above sea level—“the tropical pool, lakes, golf course and other features support the concept of a year-round destination”, said Mamdouh Abdel Wahab, its head of investor relations.
Tourism is a vital part of the Swiss economy, with revenues of 21,6-billion francs in 2004 making up nearly 5% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Swiss Tourism Federation.
The winter months—when Swiss cable cars generate more than 80% of their income—are currently the most important time of the year for the tourism industry.
But last year’s lack of snowfall was a wake-up call.
Einsiedeln, down the valley from Andermatt at 900m, had just 55cm of new snow last winter compared with an historical average of 2m, according to national weather service MeteoSchweiz.
Even in mid-season, many resorts at a similar height to Andermatt had almost no snow and various World Cup ski events—including at Wengen and Kitzbuehel—were postponed, cancelled or moved to higher altitudes.
The situation has eased this winter, with early falls and lower temperatures meaning many ski stations were able to open in November, much earlier than last year.
The Alpine snowline may retreat 350m by 2050, according to a March report by Mueller’s Institute for Leisure and Tourism, leaving a fifth of Swiss resorts without reliable snow. Their number could rise to more than half by the end of the century.
Lack of snow could have serious consequences in mountain areas, some of which generate 80% of their income from tourism, and many hotels could go out of business, the report said.
The pressure on snow-secure and easily accessible regions will increase, it said. “Because of the greater risks, insurance premiums and bank credit will become more expensive.”
But while the new plans may keep rich tourists coming in the short term, some warn they risk aggravating the difficulties of an already sensitive mountain ecology.
About 120-million people visit the Alps each year, most of whom add to the problem by travelling by car or plane, said Walter Vetterli, head of the Alpine programme at global wildlife fund WWF in Switzerland. Flagship developments like Andermatt and Zermatt risk pulling in yet more visitors and speeding the melt.
“What we need is an Alpine-wide planning of resorts and infrastructure. A wild competition will expose the Alps to additional nature and landscape degradation,” Vetterli said.
“I am afraid a lot of low altitude resorts will have to restructure” by focusing on activities other than skiing that do not depend on reliable snow cover, he said.—Reuters