How is climate change affecting Europe’s ski season? | Travel

Anton Bodner was relieved when it snowed heavily in Kitzbühel, Austria, just in time for the start of the ski season. “This has taken a lot of pressure off,” said the CEO of Bergbahn AG Kitzbühel, which operates 57 lifts around the small Austrian ski resort town. When there’s snow, the lifts transport about 1.5 million tourists each winter. “This year, nature gifted us this good start to the season,” said Bodner. “One which we haven’t had for a long time.”

Skiers took advantage of snow in the Alps in Bavaria in early December. (DW/Carsten Hoefer/dpa/picture alliance)

Despite the strong start of the ski season in Kitzbühel, the consequences of climate change are clear to see in the Alps. Rising temperatures are causing glaciers to melt, and that means less snow, making ski tourism an increasingly unpredictable business. In Kitzbühel, for example, during the famous Hahnenkamm ski race in January 2023, skiers raced down the legendary challenging ski run known as the “Streif” on artificial snow. Brown meadows flanked the snowy strip.

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Some ski resorts will face difficulties ‘in 20 years’

“Of course we are aware of climate developments,” said Bodner. “It would be crazy not to be.” He assumes that the snow line, the level on a mountain above which snow is found for most of the year, will recede by about 200 meters (660 feet) by 2050. But, thanks to the possibility of making artificial snow, “there will still be skiing in Kitzbühel in decades to come,” he said. Bodner doesn’t believe that ski tourism will vanish in the area.

Robert Steiger, an associate professor in the public finance department at the University of Innsbruck, has been studying the effects of climate change on the industry for years. He is currently working on the basis of the most pessimistic climate scenario, according to which 80% of ski resorts in the Austrian Alps will still have enough snow in 2050 — although it won’t be all natural snow. He believes there will be an increase in water use of up to 100% to account for artificial snowmaking. (Also Read | Year-end travel: Have 1 lakh? Head to Mauritius)

“Some ski resorts will still be operational at the end of the century,” he said. “For others, however, it will already be difficult in 20 years.”

Winter sports enthusiasts still main focus

First and foremost, operators need to be aware of climate-related risks. The specific impact of climate change varies from case to case, and it’s not possible to make blanket statements about what can be done to mitigate change.

“However, it has to be said that most destinations are primarily concerned with how they can safeguard their snow-related tourist business,” said Steiger.

The vast majority of companies in the industry are focusing on winter sports enthusiasts and providing enough artificial snow to keep them coming, said Werner Bätzing, a professor emeritus of cultural geography at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg.

That’s because winter sports enthusiasts bring in significantly more money than other vacationers, he said. Plus, as the market shrinks, competition increases. “This has led to merciless cut-throat competition,” said Bätzing.

Alpaca hikes and horse-drawn carriages

Many Alpine destinations continue to rely on ski tourism, as the demand for winter breaks remains high and a lack of snowfall can still be offset through artificial snowmaking.

But there have also been calls for change. The aim of the EU-funded Beyond Snow project is to encourage a rethink in the industry. “For many cable car companies, climate change is still a taboo subject,” said Giovanni Vassena of Alpine Pearls, an organization that represents various regional destinations that focus on sustainable tourism.

The municipality of Werfenweng, near Salzburg, offers alpaca hikes, toboggan runs and horse-drawn carriage rides — alongside stellar ski slopes.

Other regions have accepted that they are increasingly dependent on artificial snow. Every January, Ruhpolding in the southern German state of Bavaria hosts the Biathlon World Cup. Gregor Matjan, head of the city’s tourism board, said officials were well aware of the possibility that each year might bring less snowfall. Their solution is to rely on artificial snow to prepare cross-country ski trails used by tourists.

“I assume that this will continue to be the case for at least the next decade,” said Matjan. Other regions are creating ski trails made of plastic mats, which could make cross-country skiing a year-round activity.

“We are thinking very hard about how our tourism model needs to change,” said Bodner, of the Kitzbühel cable car company. The resort town is considering creating tourism offerings outside of the winter season, which could include mountain tours on electric bikes, among other activities.

At the moment, however, Bodner and others are simply hoping for colder temperatures and fresh snowfall.

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