Going downhill

IT'S SUPPOSED to be December, but flowers are still blooming in the Alps - great news for botanists, perhaps, but terrible news for the ski industry.

In contrast, the Scottish ski season started early this year. On the weekend of 24 and 25 November, while many resorts in the Alps were still anxiously awaiting their first snowfalls, Cairngorm Mountain was able to open several runs in its Ptarmigan Bowl area and around 500 forecast-savvy skiers took advantage.

"It was a super weekend," says the resort's marketing executive Fiona Milligan. "Considering we were supposed to be closed completely, and we were in the middle of our maintenance programmes as well, it was a credit to all the staff working here that we managed to get everything up and running in time."

Such good-news stories are certainly welcome, but they can do little to disguise the fact that the Scottish ski industry's days are numbered. According to scientists, snowsports in Scotland will almost certainly die out within the next 70 to 80 years due to the effects of global warming.

At a recent Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions conference in Crieff, John Mayhew, a climatologist with the Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Change, predicted that there will be between 90 and 100 per cent less snowfall in Scotland by the year 2080.

That figure is described as "very reasonable" by Roy Thompson, a professor of Environmental Geophysics at Edinburgh University who specialises in climate change.

"It's difficult to say how much Scotland will warm," he says, "but if the temperature is going to rise by three degrees by 2080, then we know that the snowline will go up 500 metres, and that will be the skiing gone."

Some have made more drastic predictions. In 2004, Adam Watson of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Banchory, Aberdeenshire, warned that the industry might have no more than 20 years left.

Figures from Scotland's five ski areas, Cairngorm, Glenshee, Nevis Range, Glencoe and The Lecht, suggest that global warming has already started to take its toll.

All the resorts have experienced a substantial decrease in the volume of skier visits since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the case of the two largest resorts, Cairngorm and Glenshee, the reduction has been dramatic. The two hills received 348,000 and 166,000 skier visits respectively in 1986, but by the 2005-6 season, those figures had crashed to 55,200 and 42,460. Partly this is a consequence of budget air travel, which suddenly made ski breaks to the Alps much more affordable in the mid-1990s.

In the case of Cairngorm, changing methods of local transport have also had a part to play. In the late 1980s, busloads of skiers meant more room in the car park; now, as people increasingly choose to drive their cars to the hill, there sometimes isn't enough parking to go around.

Another problem, according to Nevis Range's managing director Marion Austin, is the apparent change in the public's perception of when the Scottish ski season ends. "Last year we closed on 1 May, not because we had no snow but because we had no customers," she says. "Traditionally people skied in Scotland at Easter, when we tend to have snow and when we tend to have nicer weather. But now everybody's view is that winter is in December and January, which is quite often not our winter, and, if we do have winter, the weather's foul so nobody wants to come anyway.

"We had a campaign last spring saying 'even though it's spring in the city, it's still winter in the mountains', but it's quite hard to get that message out when you're just five small businesses."

Clearly, all these factors are important. However, there is no getting away from the fact that decreasing snowfall has played a major part in reducing the number of skiers taking to Scotland's slopes. Even in the years since 1999/2000, all five resorts have seen significant decreases in the number of viable ski days per season. At Nevis Range, Glencoe and the Lecht, the number of days suitable for skiing has roughly halved.

Hearteningly, though, there are no signs that the Scottish ski industry is about to roll over and die. "The Scots are renowned for having a really pessimistic attitude towards life, but I have to say that within the ski industry everyone is extremely optimistic for the future," says Milligan. "We want to be here and we want to be skiing for as long as possible."

"All the climate change models talk about what's going to happen in 50 and 80 years' time," says Austin, "but you tell me what business knows where it's going to be in 10 years, never mind in 50. So, from that point of view, it's all up in the air. What we're dealing with is what's happening immediately."

Despite the gloomy predictions, the owners of Scotland's ski resorts are still continuing to invest in winter sports infrastructure.

At Cairngorm, they have just built a new poma tow that will give beginners their first taste of being dragged uphill on skis; at Glencoe there are plans to build a new ski lift within the next five years; and at Nevis Range they are aiming to broaden the range of snowsports on offer, introducing snowbikes and snowshoeing expeditions in a bid to lure more non-skiers out into the white stuff.

Of course, some of the resorts are attempting to diversify. Nevis Range is fast becoming a Mecca for mountain bikers during the summer months, and its famous downhill course will host the only UK leg of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in May next year. But everyone seems to agree on the importance of trying to retain skiing customers for as long as possible. According to Austin, non-skiing visitors at Nevis Range now outnumber the skiers by eight to one, yet, in economic terms, the skiers are still well worth hanging on to.

"Somebody that's here for snowsports is here all day," she says, "so the spend from a snowsport user is much higher than from a non-snowsport user."

Milligan believes the big challenge for the years ahead is going to be persuading Scots to ski in Scotland and not overseas.

"All the resorts work together, because we know that the skiing isn't always going to be great at Cairngorm or at Nevis," she says. "The big challenge for us is to get people skiing in Scotland, not anywhere else. It doesn't matter so much where they ski, as long as they are skiing here."

It is also hoped that Glasgow's new indoor ski area, the Snowzone at Braehead, will lead to more people learning to ski and snowboard in Scotland, and, in turn, create more business for the outdoor ski centres.

"It's an ideal environment for beginners to learn," says Milligan, "so there are a lot more beginners coming in and getting started. Hopefully, from that point, they will then be encouraged to actually get out and visit ski areas, and hopefully those will be in Scotland."

So the message to Scottish skiers is clear: visit your local ski area and visit it often. If the climatologists are right, it might not be there for much longer, but the more you use it the longer it will be able to survive.