2017/18 ski season branded “a disaster at CairnGorm and an even bigger disaster for the local economy”

CairnGorm on a good day PIC: Stevie McKenna
CairnGorm on a good day PIC: Stevie McKenna
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As reported in this slot a couple of weeks ago, even though Scotland’s 2017/18 ski season was a dream – the best for five years in terms of the number of people who went skiing at the nation’s resorts – up at CairnGorm Mountain they still somehow managed to have a nightmare. While the folks at Glencoe, Glenshee, The Lecht and Nevis Range were all basking in the chilly aftermath of the Beast from the East and selling ski passes hand over (gloved) fist, CairnGorm saw its market share decline dramatically, from an average of 35 per cent over the last ten seasons to just 23.6 per cent – a drop of almost a third.

The importance of skiing at CairnGorm for the wider Speyside economy should not be underestimated: according to a Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) review published in 2011, skiers visiting CairnGorm as day trippers spend an average of £44 each in the local area while those on multi-day visits (requiring beds in which to rest their weary limbs at night and mountains of fried food to revive them each morning) bring in an average of £102 each. With day trippers and multi-day skiers thought to be split roughly 55 per cent to 45 per cent, in a good year like 2010 skiing at CairnGorm can be worth more than £10 million to Speyside, and that’s without counting the money spent on the mountain itself. Unsurprisingly then, when the ski hill has a bad year, local people – and in particular local business owners – want to know the reasons why.

As its name suggests, the Aviemore Business Association (ABA) is primarily concerned with protecting and promoting businesses in Aviemore, and as Aviemore is the town most obviously affected by fluctuations in the number of skiers heading up to CairnGorm each year, it was hardly a surprise when the organisation released a report a few weeks ago showing both the decline in CairnGorm’s market share during the 2017/18 season and the impact – based on HIE’s figures – that this would have had on the local economy: a loss of almost £4 million.

Just to be clear, that figure includes both on mountain spend (£1,159,913) and off mountain spend (£2,803,810) and was calculated by comparing the 2017/18 market share with the average market share before 2014, when the current operators, Natural Retreats, took over the running of the resort (as opposed to, say, comparing it to the average market share over the last ten years). Still, however you do the sums, broadly speaking CairnGorm’s disappointing season didn’t just mean a significant loss of income for the resort, it also meant a significant loss of income for local businesses.

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Ewan Kearney, director and chief operating officer of Natural Retreats, and asked him why he thought CairnGorm had had such an awful year. His answer: 25 days closed and 25 partial days closed due to storms. When I suggested that those same storms would also have hurt the other resorts, he replied, “if the wind’s blowing in one direction it can affect us dramatically but not other ski areas.” He also claimed that the 25 full days lost to wind would have equated to approximately 17,000 skier days which would have made the difference between their actual total and, “where we’d expect to be in a good year.”

I have subsequently heard from Alan Brattey of the ABA. He believes last season was, “a disaster at CairnGorm and an even bigger disaster for the local economy,” and he claims that Kearney’s analysis, as reported by Final Words, “doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny whatsoever.”

Regarding the number of stormbound days, he observes: “we all know that stormbound days occur every winter and CairnGorm, like all the centres, will expect to lose days every year. We know that the average number of stormbound days in a winter was 19 up to 2013 and we do not expect that will have changed [significantly] since then. On that basis it could reasonably be claimed that CairnGorm experienced six more stormbound days [in 2017/18] than they might have expected. If 17,000 skier days can be attributed to 25 days closed then only 4,080 can be attributed to the loss [caused by] six additional stormbound days. Adding 4,080 skier days to the actual number of 59,033 doesn’t make much difference but it would certainly reflect more accurately the numbers lost to storms.”

Brattey also takes issue with Kearney’s claim that 17,000 extra skier days would have taken CairnGorm to where it might be expected to be in a good year: “2013 was a good season,” he says, “and the number [of skier days] was 113,000. There were 29 stormbound days that season and that puts the 25 from last season into some perspective.

“Even adding 17,000 only takes the number [of skier days for 2017/18] up to 76,000 and it is abundantly clear that a figure as low as that in a good season [for snow] is around 25,000 short of where it ought to be.”

So if it wasn’t the wind, what did cause CairnGorm’s dreadful season?

Brattey believes that bad publicity surrounding the removal of chairlift infrastructure last summer was to blame: “We all know that many hundreds of posts were made on social media last year when the Ciste and West Wall chairs were demolished. It’s quite clear that people carried through on their threats and did not come to CairnGorm.”