Global warming and its effect on Switzerland's ski resorts

Review of articles by: Hans Elsasser and Rolf Bürk

Switzerland's economy depends heavily on tourism. For many alpine areas in the country, winter tourism is the most important source of income, and snow-reliability is one of the key elements of the offers made by tourism in the Alps. The financial viability of winter tourism, however, depends on sufficient snow conditions. The lack of snow at the end of the 1980s left a lasting imprint on the tourism industry. If the assumptions of the impacts of climate change hold true, snow cover in the Swiss Alps will diminish, and this will, in turn, jeopardise the tourism industry. 85% of Switzerland's current ski resorts can be designated as snow-reliable. If climate change occurs, the level of snow-reliability will rise from 1200 m up to 1800 m over the next few decades. Only 44% of the skiresorts would then still be snow-reliable. While some regions may be able to maintain their winter tourism with suitable adaptation strategies, others would lose all winter tourism due to a diminishing snow pack. Today, adaptation strategies are predominant in tourism. As an industry that will be severely affected by climate change, however, tourism will increasingly have to focus on mitigation strategies.

Essay by Borislav Hadzhiev
Master in Tourism Destination Management student 2008/2009

In the winter of 1997/98, snow-reliability received high rankings amongst the 'top-10 requirements' of holiday guests in Switzerland. Eighty-one percent of the guests questioned in the 'TOP Swiss—Tourism Profile Switzerland' regard this as an important aspect. Snow-reliability is a key element of offers made by ski tourism in the alpine region, and ski tourism, which depends on a sufficient amount of snow, is a key element in the tourism industry in the Alps. The crucial factor for the long-term survival of mountain cableway companies is the frequency and regularity of winters with good snow conditions, or, put the other way round, the number of snow-deficient winters that can be withstood. It is not possible to give a definitive answer here, since the economic situation of the companies varies too much. The experience acquired by Swiss ski resorts, however, shows that a ski resort can be considered snow-reliable if, in 7 out of 10 winters, a sufficient snow covering of at least 30 to 50 cm is available for ski sport on at least 100 d between December 1 and April 15. Good snow conditions are a necessity, although they are not the only prerequisite for a financially viable mountain cable-way company. Without enough snow, however, profitable ski tourism will scarcely be possible.

Apart from having sufficient snow at the right time—and particularly during the Christmas/New Year holidays—a key role is also played by the weather conditions (predominantly at the weekends). Since weekend and day guests are planning their trips at ever-shorter notice, it is not just the actual weather conditions which are a growing factor of influence, but the weather forecasts too.Climate change will lead to a new pattern of favoured and disadvantaged ski tourism regions. If all other influencing factors remain the same, ski tourism will concentrate in the high-altitude areas that are snow-reliable in the future too, e.g. most of the ski runs in the cantons of Valais and Grisons. Ski resorts at lower altitudes will withdraw from the market sooner or later because of the lack of snow. The only areas with good prospects will be those with transport facilities that provide access to altitudes higher than 2000 masl. The regions at higher altitudes may experience greater demand, prompting a further expansion in quantitative terms. The pressure on ecologically sensitive high-mountain regions will increase. The call for snow-reliable ski resorts constitutes the main reason for the current boom in concept studies and plans for opening up high-mountain regions, or, expressed in different terms: climate change is an argument for opening up high-mountain regions to tourism.

Climate change has been recognised as a problem for winter tourism. Those responsible for tourism know that what they can offer is highly dependent on snow and that they are at risk from snow-deficient winters. They are familiar with the potential consequences of climate change for winter tourism. While achieving snow-reliability constitutes a central topic, potential climatic change is seen as being only of relatively minor importance. Climate change is already affecting the strategies and plans of the winter sport resorts today. The discussions held in the focus groups clearly revealed an ambivalent relationship to climate change. On the one hand, the representatives strongly distrust the information disseminated about climate change and play down its potential consequences, but on the other hand, they use climate change to legitimate forward strategies. Climate change and global warming, together with international competition, have been used as the key arguments for constructing artificial snow-making facilities, as well as for extending existing ski runs and opening new ones in highalpine regions (at above 3000 masl).

Winter tourism depends on good snow conditions and is highly sensitive to snow-deficient winters. Climate research findings show that there will be an increase in the number of winters with little snow on account of climate change. The tourism representatives will not just sit back idly in the face of climate change. They are reacting to the deteriorating snow conditions and the changes in demand. Technical measures, especially artificial snow-making, to maintain ski tourism rank at the forefront. Tourists demand good snow conditions, and hence, this is what has to be offered by the ski resorts. The impacts of climate change will involve significant costs for tourism in Switzerland. Behind these costs are the people who are directly affected, whose personal fate this is, and who will lose their livelihoods through climate change. They will not be able to adapt as flexibly as the tourists, who will simply travel to a different ski resort with good snow conditions.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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