SNarrow strips of white pistes meandering down green or gray mountain slopes. These are the bleak images that have been blown from the Swiss Alps all over the world since Christmas. The record-high temperatures make the lower-lying ski areas in particular sweat.
Gstaad is an example of how great the desperation is. The noble place in the Bernese Oberland is only 1050 meters above sea level. The local mountain only rises to a height of almost 2000 meters. In these areas, the temperatures were so high recently that the snow cannons could no longer be used in some cases. And the white splendor, which was specially bunkered in a depot, could not be distributed with snow groomers due to the thin layer of snow at the level of the valley station. So the local mountain railway company relied on a different tool: they had the snow flown in by helicopter. This was reported by the Bern online medium “Capital”.
However, such a maneuver is an isolated case. A number of lower-lying ski areas in Eastern Switzerland, in the Jura, in Vaud and in the Bernese Oberland have simply capitulated and partially or completely closed their lift systems. This does not only affect the respective mountain railways, which now of all times lost considerable income in the normally high-sales period of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Local sports retailers, ski rental shops, ski schools and restaurants are also suffering severe losses.
But one person’s sorrow is another’s joy: the high alpine ski areas in Valais and Graubünden are benefiting from the lack of snow at lower altitudes. “The situation is good at higher altitudes,” said a spokeswoman for the marketing organization Switzerland Tourism on request. Zermatt has been experiencing a record winter since the beginning of December, according to the tourist office of the mountain village at the foot of the Matterhorn. There the ski lifts go up to a height of 3900 meters. The snow conditions are good and most of the slopes are open. There are also no complaints from Saas-Fee, Arosa and St. Moritz, after all the number of guests in these regions is even higher than last year.
Looking for winter sports alternatives
The two-class society in Swiss winter tourism is also reflected in the interim balance of the national cable car association. Accordingly, as a result of the thaw, the industry as a whole got off to a bad start in the most important season of the year. The association reports a drop in so-called first-time entries (skier days) of 24 percent and a drop in sales of 9 percent. There is a clear gap between the high and the lower ski areas. First entries and sales in destinations with a good range of slopes above 2000 meters have increased slightly compared to the previous year. “This clearly shows that ski areas at high altitudes and with good technical snowmaking can do very well even in mild winters,” writes the association.
But: What does that mean for the future of all those ski areas that are not lucky enough to be located at the foot of a 3,000 meter high massif that is also fun to play in? Global warming will not only continue to attack the Swiss glaciers, but will also push the snow line higher and higher. Therefore, the lower-lying ski areas should increasingly develop alternatives for winter sports, says the spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism.
She cites the tourism regions of Lenzerheide in the canton of Graubünden and Sattel-Hochstuckli in the canton of Schwyz as role models. The offer for bikers and hikers has been significantly expanded there and thus attracts more guests outside of the winter season.
“You get more out of winter than summer”
Christian Laesser, tourism economist at the University of St. Gallen, also thinks it is right to expand the tourist offer in summer and thus make better use of the capital-intensive cable car systems. But: “The added value created by winter tourism is significantly higher in most cases. In winter you get more out of volume and sales than in summer,” Laesser told the Swiss “Tages-Anzeiger”. Because in the warm season, the competition for leisure activities is much greater. Laesser concluded that many regions would probably not be able to avoid gradually reducing mountain railway capacities.
Overall, however, Switzerland can look to the future with more equanimity than other Alpine countries: As far as the average height of the winter sports areas is concerned, the Confederation is clearly at the top in Europe. 29 stations are above 2800 meters.
In Gstaad they have now completed the expensive helicopter snow maneuver. The attempt did not work, explained the Bergbahn boss Matthias In-Albon. The amount of snow per flight was too small and loading and unloading was too difficult.