Club Med and other top European ski resort operators are bracing for a tough holiday season as they endure the warmest winter in centuries and severe shortages of snow.
In France, the Val d’Isere ski resort had to cancel two World Cup Races scheduled for early December as the snow wasn’t abundant enough to secure the runs.
At the same time, an OECD report this week said Alpine areas are experiencing the warmest weather in 1,300 years, posing a “serious risk” to lower-altitude ski stations.
That’s all adding up to a much happier Christmas in Western Canada, where places like Whistler-Blackcomb, B.C., and other snow-choked ski centres in the Rockies are booked to the max and turning away European customers.
“We are getting an increase in calls from Europe asking about availability, but it’s getting difficult to accommodate them,” said Jeff Pensiero, the owner of Boldface Lodge, a back-country snowcat ski and snowboarding resort that is a five-minute helicopter flight from Nelson, B.C. “They’re usually calling for already sold-out periods.”
Western Canada ski centres have been revelling in record snowfalls so far this year, while Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland try to cope with some of the direst conditions ever — a graphic demonstration, say scientists, of the effects of global warming.
French holiday company Pierre & Vacances said last week that business was down a bit in its mountain locations but the firm kept a brave face, Reuters reported. “The snow will come. It will no doubt lead to a wave of reservations, company chairman Gérard Bremond said.
Canada’s national snowboard team recently competed at an event in Slovenia where grass patches played havoc with the sport, and some said the contest shouldn’t have gone ahead.
Banks in Switzerland are refusing to lend money to resorts below an altitude of 1,500 metres, and some small operations are closing, Shardul Agrawala, who carried out the OECD study, told the Guardian News Service. To be sure, resorts in Eastern Canada and the eastern U.S. have also been struggling with unusually mild temperatures and little or no snow.
Ian Galbraith, spokesman for Intrawest ULC, which owns ski resorts across North America, said that while the company’s ski hills in the eastern half of the continent are up and running, “conditions aren’t ideal.” Mont Tremblant, north of Montreal, for example, has 24 trails open and is in good shape, while Blue Mountain, north of Toronto, is operating thanks to snow-making equipment.
Intrawest’s Stratton resort in Vermont also has several runs in operation, despite warm weather in the region in recent days.
Fortunately for most resorts in the East, there has been enough cold weather for snow-making equipment to kick in and build a good base to start operations.
“With the altitudes we have on the mountains we can usually make snow, so [the warm weather] hasn’t hindered us,” Mr. Galbraith said.
Meanwhile, the West doesn’t know what to do with all its white stuff. Whistler-Blackcomb — also owned by Intrawest — had almost five metres of snow fall in November alone, Mr. Galbraith said. “Visitations are up. This is definitely a great start to the season,” although it’s too early to say if there is an uptick in European visitors, he said.
Intrawest has been getting the word out about the fantastic conditions to European and Eastern Canada skiers through various marketing and e-mail channels, he said.
Legendary heli-skiing operator Mike Wiegele — based in Blue River, B.C. — said he’s hopeful there will be an influx of Euro-skiers this season but says it’s too early to tell.
He’s also wary about the situation, saying poor skiing conditions in Europe could have a general dampening effect.
“The enthusiasm goes down. People start doing other things. That’s the scary part of it,” he said.
“The thing is to get the word out about the superb conditions here.”
Philippe Jolin of Montreal travel agency Skican said he’s seen a significant drop in bookings by U.S. skiers for Quebec’s premier destination, Mont Tremblant.
Tremblant is one of the few resorts in the province that has good conditions, but the uncertainty over the weather has resulted in more Americans deciding to book out West, he said.
BERTRAND MAROTTE from Friday’s Globe and Mail
With files from reporter Richard Blackwell, Bloomberg, Reuters