Recent weeks have seen huge snowfalls in the UK, on mainland Europe and across North America, but research by Unesco’s environment programme suggests long-term global warming will push the snowline up worldwide in years to come.
European ski resorts range from very low-lying ones, such as Lillehammer in Norway which is just 180 metres above sea level, to a few approaching 4,000 metres at Chamonix in the French Alps. In North America resorts are generally higher, ranging from 1,500 to 4,000 metres, especially in the most mountainous areas like Colorado.
If scientists are correct, Austria might see the most spectacular change; its snowline will rise a startling 300 metres by 2050. Sooner than that, the French Snow Research Centre says a 1.8C rise in temperature will shorten France‘s snow cover above 1,500 metres from 170 days to 135. Switzerland’s Association of Winter Sports Resorts says its annual season has been cut by 12 days, just since 1995.
There are no authoritative figures on the international ownership of ski homes but between 2004 and 2007, around 70% of all flats and chalets sold in one large resort in the French Alps were bought by Britons, and dozens of British estate agents market ski properties in Europe and North America. Now they – and the developers behind the resorts – are trying to avoid this lucrative market being consigned to history.
“Many ski towns have been trying to ensure that they’re ‘year round’ to attract visitors in the summer as well as the winter,” says Andrew Hawkins of Chesterton Humberts estate agency.
For example, Morillon, near the Swiss-French border, is only 700 metres above sea level and has introduced climbing, walking and biking trails, as well as fishing and boating lake. It even has a snow-making machine. Other resorts have built golf courses at the foot of mountains to attract tourists in summer.
“We’re witnessing an increase of demand for property in European year-round resorts such as Morzine, Les Gets, Chamonix, Serre Chevalier and Deux Alpes,” says a spokeswoman for the British specialist ski estate agency, Erna Low Property.
Britons are also looking at less obvious locations for chalets and apartments in a bid to guarantee snow for their own use and to maximise their lettings seasons.
“North American resorts tend to be purpose-built at high altitudes, as opposed to European resorts that often expand from – but are restricted by – their rural village roots,” says Sean Collins of Pure International, a UK-based estate agency selling ski properties on both continents. He says Canada has a ski season stretching from November to May, contrasting with December to April in the Alps.
Italy, until recently the poor relation of European ski destinations, is enjoying a resurgence with British buyers because its newer resorts are at a high altitude. Cervinia, about 80 minutes from Turin, has skiing up to 3,000 metres.
“A couple of years ago, following poor snow conditions in many resorts, buyers would only consider high altitude resorts or were hesitant to invest at all,” says Gemma Bruce of GK Italian Property, a British agency selling homes in Italy. “Given the excellent snow in the Alps in the last two seasons, pressure on agents and developers for very high altitude properties has lessened. But buyers are more discerning than ever, only considering resorts at high altitudes with large ski areas – more than 150km of runs – and summer activities,” she says.
Unlikely as it seems, the Moroccan ski resort of Oukaimeden – about a two-hour drive from Marrakech with skiing in winter months between 2,600 and 3,200 metres – is expanding rapidly to accommodate increased business, and boasts of its “snow-assured” status in comparison to more established but low-altitude resorts in Europe.
In addition to the threat of climate change, property sales to Britons in many ski resorts have tumbled because of the recession and weak pound.
In parts of the French and Swiss Alps, “prices of virtually new, top-end properties have plummeted, although this crash is not expected to last,” says Joanna Yellowlees-Bound, who runs Erna Low Property. She is selling flats in the Arc 1950 resort in France for as much as 30% below their 2007 levels, and says she has never seen such reductions in 30 years of selling ski properties.
Rents are also low for some ski homes because of reduced demand from Britons thanks to the strong euro and dollar, and worries over snowfall at low-lying resorts. Ski holiday websites such as sara-residences.com are offering up to 35% off rental costs, plus free ski passes, at resorts in the Alps this month.
Many sites advertise rental prices at Bulgaria’s Bansko, Borovets and Pamporovo resorts – where thousands of new apartments have flooded the market in recent years – from just €21 per night. But another website, ski-direct.co.uk, warns that “Bulgarian resorts are at a relatively low altitude; their snow record, early and late season, can be patchy.”
One country where ski chalet owners and resort operators have seen fortunes rise over the past few weeks is Scotland. The best conditions for more than a decade have sparked a boom at Aviemore, Scotland’s biggest resort, where more than 20,000 skiers have taken to the slopes, four times as many as at this time last year. Tourist officials report that ski accommodation bookings are up 500%.
Whatever this winter brings (ski clubs expect perfect conditions because of the widespread snow), the long-term prospects for chalet owners are worrying. Unless, that is, they head for the hills.