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Mountain tourism: major French resorts seek diversity

A small number of major stations alone make account for more than half of tourist arrivals in France. And this phenomenon should intensify with regard to the capacity of these resorts to renew their leisure supply: most have or will create another major offer that is not ski.

Of the 293 ski resorts in France, the thirty biggest in terms of turnover accounted for 57.7% of occupancy last year, or a total of 31,903,916 ski days. These resorts all belong to ski areas that allow them to attract vacationers by reporting increasing numbers of ski trails. For example, the 3 Valleys area, in Savoy (one of the biggest worldwide), has eight resorts and offers skiers 600 kilometers of trails. These include Les Ménuires, Courchevel, Méribel and Val-Thorens, which are all among the top 15 French resorts.

The following chart represents the number of ski days in winter 2013/2014 in the thirty biggest resorts, as well as the areas they belong to and the number of trails accessible. Each of these stations has more than 500,000 ski days per year, and fourteen of them cater to more than a million.

Kilometers of trails accessible in the area and number of ski days at France's largest stations

This popularity has nonetheless not prevented resorts from seeing their occupancy rates stagnate in recent years, and even drop in less snowy years. As visitors seek a greater variety of activities and less intensive skiing, resorts are trying to reinvent themselves by offering travelers increasing numbers of activities and leisure equipment. They thus wish to stand out among other resorts and attract visitors with their particularities.

Half of these major stations thus created aquatic facilities with swimming pools and wellness areas to attract all types of clientele (examples: Les Bruyères in Ménuires, Forme d'O in Châtel and Le Signal in Saisies, which opened this year), and two are still in the pipeline in Courchevel and Valmorel. Saisies emphasizes its 120 kilometers of cross country trails, La Plagne its Olympic bobsledding track and Méribel its Olympic Park. The resort Les Arcs opened a sports, aquatic and leisure complex this year called Mille8, which has a swimming pool, specialized ski spaces, a restaurant and many activities.

Like athletic competitions, music and film events are increasingly present at resorts. For example, the 6th edition of the European Film Fesitval Festival took place at Les Arcs from December 13 to 20 December; from January 14 to 18 there will be the International Festival of Comedy in Alpe d'Huez, and from March 14 to 21 the Festival Rock the Pistes at all the Portes du Soleil resorts. The Tignes resort is one of the most dynamic, with more than fifteen events scheduled this winter and an advertising campaign addressing young adults. The purpose of all these events is to attract vacationers to the mountain resorts for other reasons besides ski, an activity that has been stagnating recently, which is evident in the number of ski days. These efforts seem to be paying off as the number of nights at resorts is not falling off, and is even increasing in most regions: in five years (2008-2013), up 3.3% in Tarentaise and 5.5% in Portes du Soleil.

Even if they do not have the means to build the same structures and to organize this type of event, the smallest resorts, with their smaller ski areas that are more family-oriented, nonetheless continue to attract because of their authenticity, their human dimension and package deals that are often less expensive than those at major resorts. For example, Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise, in Savoy, saw its arrivals grow by 38.2% in 2008/2009 and 2013/2014, up to 166,524 ski-days, even if this figure remains lower than that of the giants of the French mountains. Although this resort is not connected to a vaster area by ski, the possibility for skiers with a weekly pass to ski for one day (by paying a supplement at a special rate) at Espace Killy surely has something to do with it. At a time when the biggest stations are investing more and more to diversify their leisure activities in addition to skiing, and smaller ones are trying to expand in order to secure arrivals and strengthen their appeal in terms of traditional Alpine skiing (size of trails, guarantee of snow), partnerships between resorts could easily constitute an economic model that will develop in the years to come.

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