With 125 million people skiing and snowboarding around the world, snow sports are booming. And yet, the ski industry is at risk. Climate change is by far the biggest threat to this multi-billion dollar industry, creating unpredictability with outright heat and drought, and threatening the whole business model.
The industry is grappling to survive in ever-decreasing seasons. Winters are generally shorter by a month compared to 30 years ago and experts warn that we're poised to exceed the 35ºF global average temperature limit set at the Paris Agreement. This could mean an end to the ski industry everywhere except high or very northern locations. Unless we do something to halt the increase in global temperatures, ski resorts will become a relic of the past.
Warmer winters result in a lack of real snow, which is leading to most resorts having to rely on a quick-fix: The snow cannon. These machines work through the night to spray artificial snow onto the slopes, but they have a considerable environmental impact. For Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, their arrival at virtually every major resort over the past decade is a worrying trend. “Snow cannons use a colossal amount of water and enable the vast expansion of ski areas – encroaching on natural habitats,” he says. “We need to see the industry take steps to remove their use.”
The need to diversify
Instead of relying purely on white winters, properties located in ski destinations should look to alternative activities that can be offered in low seasons – or when snowfall isn’t as reliable in the future due to climate change. Colin Mathews is Founder of Meriski, which offers “Mountain Experiences”, a free service connecting guests with guides specializing in less obvious snowy pursuits—like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing—as well as snow-free activities such as horse riding, yoga, and swimming. “Variety is the spice of life and the ski industry is no different,” he says. “Ski resorts have to diversify not only in winter but also in summer with activities like cycling, cooking courses, health weeks, and golf.”
Many resorts are now realizing they need to act fast to preserve their shelf life. Laax, in Switzerland, is working on a sustainability project called Greenstyle, aiming to become the world’s first self-sufficient ski resort. The Swiss resort now acquires 100% of its energy needs from CO2-neutral sources, such as hydro, wind, and solar power. In France, Chamonix plans to slash its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, while Lech in Austria has reduced its CO2 emissions and improved air quality by building a biomass plant to provide heat and hot water to the resort, and setting up bus services to reduce the need for cars.
Properties can—and must—play their part. Justin Francis wants accommodations to encourage their guests to avoid ramping up the planet’s carbon emissions by air travel. A train journey to a ski resort emits around 90% less CO2 per person than by plane, according to research by Best Foot Forward. Properties must help highlight this. “We’re keen to encourage people to travel by train wherever possible. Many ski resorts are easily reached by train, and it can be a much nicer way to make a journey through some incredible locations,” Franics says.
Other simple, environmentally-friendly steps accommodation owners can take include fitting their own buildings with solar panels and encouraging guests to take reusable water bottles onto the slopes instead of buying single-use plastic bottles. Suggesting using public transit—often a free shuttle bus—instead of their car is another step in the right direction. Reto Fry, Sustainability Manager at the Weisse Arena Gruppe that runs Laax, says convenience is key. “It must be easy and convenient for guests to have a sustainable holiday.”
Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, believes that dealing with climate change is about more than solar panels and reusable water bottles. Instead, he says, it’s about political lobbying, with accommodations well-placed to engage guests to push on climate policy. “It’s not about eliminating plastic straws, though we should all do that. It’s about wielding power. So how, for example, can you reach your often wealthy and influential guests with a message on climate action?”
- Climate change is the biggest threat to the ski industry. Winters are estimated to be shorter by around a month compared to 30 years ago
- Accommodations should encourage guests to arrive by train instead of plane, and help make using public transit and taking reusable bottles to the slopes easy and convenient
- Traveling by train to a ski resort emits around 90% less CO2 per person than the same journey by plane
- Accommodations located in ski destinations should consider offering alternative activities for low season and the prospect of snow-free winters, such as tennis, swimming, and cooking courses