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Winter Sports: Christmas warmth threatens the season

After a 4.6% drop in occupancy at French ski resorts last year, this new season is off to a slow start due to little snowfall, whereas December traditionally represents a large share of winter business.

Snowfall in the French mountains is abnormally low for December, preventing ski resorts from opening all their trails, while several have not opened any. Unfavorable weather conditions have forced the cancellation of World Cup events at Courchevel in the Val d'Isère as well as in La Clusaz. Meanwhile these costly events are awaited impatiently by the resorts whose business is more intense during sports competitions.

With just a few days left before Christmas, the situation is worrisome for professionals. Only 9 slopes are open at La Plagne, 17 at Alpe d'Huez and 13 at Saint Lary Soulan, in the Pyrénées. Generally speaking, the month of December represents a large share of revenues for ski resorts: it usually accounts for 25% to 30% of the number of ski days at ski areas each season, depending on the year. This proportion has even increased recently: last year, 29% of ski days were sold between the opening of the season and the end of the Christmas vacation, up 3 points over winter 2011/2012. The month of December is thus the second most important period in terms of occupancy, just after the February-March winter break that accounts for one third of ski days. Meanwhile, in terms of nights, it represents 19.5% of those realized in the Alps in 2012/2013, versus 16.4% two years earlier.

The impact of snowfall on occupancy at ski resorts is a phenomenon that was particularly evident in winter 2010/2011. the low level of precipitation led to a 6% drop in number of ski days in the French stations. In Chamonix, it was even down by -22.3% with respect to the previous year. Occupancy then rose the following year when snowfall was denser.

Unfavorable meteorological conditions in December have had an even greater impact on ski resorts since 2010 when the number off skiers on the slopes during the spring break dropped due to the shift of the holiday to about a week later with respect to the previous decade. Now the Spring break finishes mid-May, which is too late to benefit from favorable snow conditions. Between 1996 and 2010, Spring break represented an average of 8% of annual ski days at ski resorts. This proportion dropped to 4% in winter 2010/2011 when school vacations were redistributed, and it continued to fall in the years thereafter. The shift of Spring break also resulted in a drop in number of nights during this period. For example, in the Northern Alps, they only represent 5% of nights during the season versus 8.6% in 2010/2011, or a loss of 1.4 million nights.

With a few days left for snow to fall and reassure Alpine professionals about their business during the Christmas holiday and the rest of the season the current lack of snow is a reminder that ski resorts need to renew diversify the activities they offer.
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