Number crunching the Scottish ski industry’s best winter in five years

Perfect conditions for skiing (and snowboarding) at CairnGorm Mountain on 1 April 2018 PIC: Peter Jolly
Perfect conditions for skiing (and snowboarding) at CairnGorm Mountain on 1 April 2018 PIC: Peter Jolly
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At about this time last year, James McIntosh, manager of the Lecht ski centre, gave me his views on the future of the Scottish ski industry.

With very little snowfall to speak of, and rapid thaws when the snow did come, Scotland had just experienced its worst winter for skiing since at least 1989, recording just 54,156 “skier days” across the five resorts (a skier day being equivalent to one person buying a day pass or two people each buying a half-day pass.)

The number was so low – about a quarter of the average for the previous five seasons – that it had caused a degree of panic among members of the snow-sliding community, and renewed speculation that the resorts’ days might be numbered. McIntosh, however, was a very long way from throwing in the towel

Having worked at the Lecht since it opened in 1977, he was able to take the long view. “I’ve seen brilliant seasons, good seasons, bad seasons and very bad seasons, like last winter,” he said. “It’s not anything new when you’ve been involved in skiing as long as I have.”

He also noted that the Lecht had never had “two really poor seasons in a row,” and made what seemed at the time like a recklessly optimistic prediction: “In my experience,” he said, “a bad winter for skiing is usually followed by a really good season with loads of snow. That’s what we’re planning for at The Lecht for 2017-18.”

Well, it turns out there really is no substitute for experience: the official “skier days” statistic for the 2017/18 season has been released, and it makes McIntosh look like Nostradamus. The total of 247,139 is the highest for five years, the best result since the 2012-13 season, when 290,996 skier days were recorded. It’s well above the ten year average of 205,042 too, and even if you throw out the 2016/17 season as an anomaly it’s still comfortably above 221,807 – the average for the other nine years.

True, it’s still a long way off the mythical 2009/10 season total of 374,789 skier days, but that year with its superabundance of both snow and sunshine, was as much of an outlier as last year in terms of conditions. Any way you slice it, then, the 2017/18 skier days statistic is excellent news for the Scottish snowsliding business, and for the nation as a whole: since the 2009-10 ski season, Scotland’s snowsports areas are said to have generated an estimated £200 million for the Highlands economy.

It’s not just the headline figure that’s encouraging either. For at least the last decade, the common refrain from ski-scotland, the combined marketing body for the five Scottish resorts, has been that many skiers and boarders seem to give up on snowsports a little prematurely each year, leaving the pistes frustratingly quiet in April and early May, when conditions are often at their best. Now, however, it seems that maybe, just maybe, the message might be starting to get through.

Following the weekend of 7 and 8 April, ski-scotland issued a press release celebrating the fact that they had surpassed 202,000 skier days, meaning that the remaining 45,000 – almost a fifth of the total – came in the last three or four weeks of the season. Given that The Lecht and Glenshee were only open until 15 and 16 April respectively and given that Nevis was closed by the 23rd, that equates to some pretty heavy late-season traffic, both during and after the Easter holidays.

Back in 2010 I interviewed Heather Negus, the marketing officer at Nevis Range, about the dearth of late-season visitors:

“I think the challenge is that a lot of our customers are in the central belt,” she told me. “By [late season] the sun’s shining and people are wearing shorts and T-shirts so going skiing’s the last thing on their minds because they can’t see the snow on the hills. They’ve moved on to the next activity – whatever it is – that takes over from skiing in the spring and the summer.”

So what’s changed in the last eight years? Social media gets blamed for all kinds of things, from causing mental illness to undermining democracy, and it’s commonly associated with people sitting indoors, interacting with thousands of virtual friends rather than getting out into the real world and meeting up with a few real ones, but I wonder if it isn’t at least part of the reason that more people have been skiing this spring than in years gone by. After all, if your friends – virtual or otherwise – are posting pictures of blue skies and soft spring snow on your Facebook and Twitter feeds every five minutes, the only sensible thing to do, surely, is put down your smartphone and join them.