To Ski or not to Ski?
Over the past year, the topic of ‘sustainability’ has received much attention within ICHRIE and elsewhere. In fact, in an article in last month’s Communique, we learned that the United Nations has declared 2017 the ‘Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development’. As educators and industrialists, we have long recognised the need for hospitality and tourism firms to embrace sustainable business practices in order to minimise their impact on the natural environment as well as on the social, cultural and economic environments in which they operate. Adopting these practices helps to ensure the long-term sustainability of tourism destinations and to create long-term consumer and employee value.
Sustainability is also a key topic where I am sitting writing this article. I am currently on holiday in a small village in the French Alps. As I look across the valley towards the ski resort, I am wondering how they are managing to keep some of the resort open for skiing. There has been no snowfall for over a month now pretty much anywhere in the Alps (France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria) and the days here are full of glorious sunshine and record high temperatures. These weather conditions may sound good but they actually create difficult ski conditions and ‘boiler plate’ pistes. The situation is exacerbated by the record demand this week between Christmas and New Year as research suggests resorts earn 20% of their annual revenue in this week. The only way resorts can remain open is through a good deal of hard work and the use of snow cannons to produce artificial snow. However, it is the use of these snow cannons that underlies much of the sustainability debate here.
Ski resorts across the globe are increasingly making use of snow cannons or snow making machines since they were developed in the 1950s. The use of snow cannons varies around the globe, but research suggests that 15% of French ski resorts use snowmaking equipment, 30 % percent across the whole of the Alps and around 98% of resorts in the USA. While there are two types of machines available, they generally work by mixing water and air which freezes and falls as ‘snow’. By using these machines, ski resorts are able to ensure a sound base of artificial snow to prepare for the arrival of natural snow, and also to supplement natural snowfall during the course of the ski season. Although expensive (research suggests they make up 15 to 25% of operating costs), using artificial snow helps resorts to open, at least partially, when faced with the difficult weather conditions. As such they are helping to ensure the long-term sustainability of mountain resort destinations and the local communities which are economically dependent on the winter ski and snow sport season.
However, there are many who criticise the use of snow making equipment, also on the basis of sustainability. Making artificial snow uses a great deal of energy as well as water. A report by Mountain Wilderness reveals it requires around 25,000 KW hours and 4,000 cubic metres of water to cover one hectare of piste with artificial snow for a season. Additionally, in some resorts, chemicals which are called nucleators are added to water to improve the efficiency of snow making. Although these chemicals have not been shown to be toxic to people or animals, research to date is rather limited. As a single snow cannon emits between 60 to 80 decibels, noise pollution is another concern. Critics also argue that natural vegetation on the mountains is also affected by longer snow coverage. Artificial snow can takes up to one month longer than natural snow to melt in the summer, further impacting on the concerns for the long-term ecological balance of mountain resorts.
While the arguments on both side of the ‘sustainability’ debate are clear, what is also readily apparent is that there is no easy answer or clear debate winner. Globally, the winter sports industry is estimated to be worth $70 billion dollars. While this might look like a small fraction of the value of the global economy, this industry is considered to be the responsible for overcoming poverty in small mountain communities, and halting the depopulation that occurred at the end of the 19th century. As research suggests that 44% of the 400 million global skier visits in the world are to the Alps and 21% to the US, it is vital to many communities in both Europe and North America. Nonetheless, the long-term sustainability of mountain resorts must not be ignored and whenever there are warm conditions and poor snowfalls the debate is likely to escalate. Experts advise that a cost-benefit analysis of the use of snow cannons to produce artificial snow is difficult particularly given the uncertainty as to whether and to what extent temperatures will continue to rise in the future. According to the OECD, an average temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius will reduce the number of snow ‘snow-reliable’ (those areas with around 30 cm of snow for at least 100 days/year) resorts from 600 to 500 in the Alps.
Finding a balance to ensure sustainability is therefore critical and many resorts are making dedicated efforts to reduce their impact on the environment. Electricity in some resorts is supplied solely from renewable energy sources such as hydroelectricity. In the Austrian Tyrol, artificial snow is made from pure water taken from rivers which are assessed to determine the exact amount of water that can be safely removed without environmental damage, or from rainwater captured in reservoirs that must undergo environmental impact assessments before construction. Even pistes can be created using a method to keep all the plant and insect diversity intact. A number of resorts are increasingly adopting green credentials through their transport, recycling and other energy efficient practices. There are even eco-friendly skis, snowboards and wax for them available. Winter sports enthusiasts can also further contribute by patronising resorts or tour operators with green credentials, such as those aligned with the following AITO guidelines:
- To protect the environment – its flora, fauna and landscapes
- To respect local cultures – traditions, religions and built heritage
- To benefit local communities – both economically and socially
- To conserve natural resources – from office to destination
- To minimise pollution – through noise, waste disposal and congestion
My small mountain community is making an effort to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices to ensure sustainability. However, those who rely on the ski resort for their livelihood are worried; this is the second year in a row with late snow. I am keeping my fingers crossed for them but having written this article I am also questioning my own efforts to reduce my carbon footprint and help ensure the sustainability of this resort that is my home away from home.
With kind regards,