Winter tourism under pressure

Fri, 07. Feb. 2020

What concrete effects does climate change have on the tourist destination of Gstaad? The ongoing rise in temperature will significantly worsen the conditions for winter sports operations. At the same time, the summer could become more attractive for guests.

Climate change is manifesting itself in the Saanenland similarly as in the rest of Switzerland: dry, hot summers and warmer winters with more precipitation in the form of rain. For Gstaad as a tourist destination, these scenarios could have a negative impact specifically on the winter season, during which the majority of revenues are generated from tourism.

More precipitation, less snow
As in the whole of Switzerland, winters with higher precipitation are also expected here. At the same time, the zero-degree line is expected to rise from 850 to 1250 up until 1500 metres by mid-century, according to the National Center for Climate Services (NCCS). For Gstaad, this would mean that around half of the ski resort could expect more days of fresh snow – right?

Christoph Marty denies this conclusion: “Overall, the warming is stronger than the increase in precipitation.” The scientist works at the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research and specialises in snow and permafrost as well as winter sports and climate. “Only areas above 3,000 metres can expect more snow during the next century.” What needs to be taken into account here though, is the harsher weather conditions at such altitudes.

In view of the rising zero-degree line, areas between 1500 and 2500 metres, which includes the Saanenland, will experience the greatest change in the course of the next century, explains Marty.

"Precarious winter prospects"
The local winter sports area extends from the lowest valley station in Rougemont at 973 metres to the highest mountain station La Videmanette at 2157 metres. “From a purely business point of view, ski resorts with mountain stations at around 1600 metres are already a zero-sum business at best – even with artificial snow”. Nevertheless, the expert for climate and winter sports assumes that artificial snowmaking will continue to be expanded, because  for destinations such as Gstaad, winter sports are the anchor point for the entire regional economy”. Marty estimates that snowmaking will be able to compensate for the lack of snow in the medium term. “But there will always be greater costs to keep the ski operation running.”

Snow is a complex phenomenon
Compared with areas in the east of Switzerland at the same altitude, Gstaad is less sure to have snow. Marty cites regional differences as the reason for this: “Ski resorts at a similar altitude to Gstaad are practically all located in eastern Switzerland in the eastern Pre-Alps, where there is usually more precipitation in winter than in the Saanenland”. On the other hand, the Saanenland can expect more hours of sunshine.

Environmental changes
Climate change is not only bringing about many changes for tourism, but also for nature and agriculture. Such influences are already noticeable today. Thus, the melting of glaciers causes landslides and floods. Also, heavy precipitation increases in summer, as the warmer air can hold more moisture.

The persistent heat and drought are giving farms a hard time, although the rising vegetation zones could increase yields in the foothills of the Alps. Streams dry out and the production and protective function of the Pre-Alpine forests suffers from the infestation of pests such as bark beetles, which take advantage of the warmer temperatures.

Gstaad’s winter tourism is most likely to face a lot of pressure. However, this will not happen at once. The quantities of snow are subject to strong fluctuations and are very difficult to estimate.

“Individual snow-rich winter months are also possible in the future,” says Marty. “The changes are not linear.” It is also to be hoped that the Paris Agreement will at least be partially observed. In this case, the Saanenland would still be faced with changes, but winter tourism in particular would face far fewer challenges.

Based on AvS/Sara Trailovic
Translated by Justine Hewson

The entire economy is affected

Winter tourism makes up a considerable part of Gstaad’s economic strength. How do local institutions react to the extreme predictions of climatology?

It is difficult to gauge how long it will be worth maintaining Gstaad’s slopes and cable cars if the entire economy of a region depends on winter tourism. Winter tourism creates countless jobs and boosts the added value of Gstaad’s goods and services. Matthias In-Albon, managing director of Bergbahnen Destination Gstaad AG (BDG), emphasises this when he says that "Christmas time alone accounts for 25% of annual turnover." If they had not invested in the snow-making systems three years ago, today’s seamless operation would not be possible, which is unavoidable to remain competitive in the industry today.

Additional value
In April 2018, the Saanen municipal assembly awarded the BDG CHF 19m for the years 2018 to 2022 (3.8 million per year). 1.8m of this goes annually into the winter infrastructure, including artificial snow making and the maintenance of snow groomers. Winter tourism should thus remain attractive. It has to since the BDG mountain cable cars generate almost all of their sales over the winter.

The fact that Gstaad receives financial support is no exception: the vast majority of Swiss ski resorts can only survive through subsidised services. The federal government and the cantons also make a considerable contribution to maintaining structures in the mountain regions.

Strategy of year-round tourism
Flurin Riedi, managing director of Gstaad Saanenland Tourism (GST), is aware that climate change will affect tourism. "I see the future in year-round tourism," he says. "Winter operations are absolutely essential for the time being." However, he believes that guaranteed snow services should be offered to non-skiers and this does not only make sense from a climate point of view. According to the Avenir Suisse think tank, winter sports are also being affected by digitalisation and the ageing of society.

According to the tourism expert’s estimations, tackling the issue of climate change requires more strategic action. "We need to be visionary in our thinking and in terms of where we’ll be in 20 to 30 years." He adds, "When reviewing the destination’s strategy, which is due in 2020, we’re going to define concrete steps."

On the glacier snow remains
Areas such as Glacier 3000 will have no shortage of snow in the foreseeable future. CEO Bernhard Tschannen says: "Our area has always benefited from guaranteed snow, which is why winter operations run from November to May." Since the ski area is located at over 3000 metres altitude, the average snowfall could even be greater. However, despite guaranteed snow, the glacier area is likely to offer fewer skiing days over the longer term, as climate changes could exacerbate weather events that are already harsh at this altitude.

From winter to summer tourism    
While more extreme (and hotter) weather is likely to be a feature in the lowlands in the near future, Gstaad can look forward to an increasing number of pleasantly warm summer days. People plagued by tropical nights are likely to be more frequent visitors to the mountains with cooler temperatures and waters to bathe in. Faced with rising temperatures, the summer season could extend into October in the future.

This in itself sounds promising. However, there is a catch: "Summer tourism on its own has a negative budgetary effect and is financed by the winter economy," says In-Albon. In order to promote year-round tourism, more than 50% of contributions (CHF 2m), are used for summer operations, especially when in financing new facilities and extending opening times in the spring and autumn. Profitable year-round tourism is still a dream of the future.

The situation is different with Glacier 3000. Tschannen says: "Today, walkers and people on foot make up 70% of visitors compared to 30 percent of skiers over the whole year." The CEO attributes the successful expansion of year-round tourism within about ten years to new offers such as the Peak Walk by Tissot and the summer toboggan run, as well as the major advertising and sales initiatives offered in Asia, among others.

Winter tourism is indispensable
In view of the enormous importance of the winter sports industry for the Saanenland as a whole, the institutions and municipalities will surely continue to support and maintain winter sports despite precarious future prospects, while the value of this strategy remains under continuous review.

Based on AvS/Sara Trailovic
Translated by Justine Hewson



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