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Mountain Tourism: Transition Of Ski Resorts In Face Of Ever-Elusive Snow

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A bleak future for snowfall in ski resorts in the Pyrenees

The researchers modelled the evolution of snow conditions between 1960 and 2100 in the Pyrenees relying on meteorological observations in the Pyrenees since 1958, integrating snow management practices in ski resorts (snow packing, producing artificial snow, etc.) and taking into account forecasts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions used by the IPCC. They considered three contrasting case scenarios: the first which predicts high GHG emissions (RCP 8.5); the second which predicts a stabilisation of GHG emissions at the current level through to mid-century followed by a dip (RCP 4.5); and the third which involves achieving global carbon neutrality between now and about mid-century (RCP 2.6). For the purposes of their analysis, they defined the snow reliability altitude, or the altitude at which the presence of snow (natural or artificial) is reliable and frequent enough for winter sports resorts to operate.

In all cases, forecasts indicate deteriorating snow cover which is irreversible for the first half of the century given the case scenarios considered. Towards mid-century, snow cover becomes reliable from an altitude of about 2,300m without additional artificial production, and 1,800m with. In the case of high GHG emissions, it is only from 2,750m that reliable snowfall can be expected.

This diminishing snow reliability goes hand in hand with increasingly frequent unfavourable seasons for exploiting ski resorts, until reaching 100% in 2080 in the case of high GHG emissions. Even for the carbon-neutral scenario, the return of unfavourable seasons would stabilise at about one season every 2-3 seasons. The impact of GHG emissions will be decisive for the second half of the 21st century and highlight the fact that adaptation and reducing emissions for all human activity are inextricably bound. These factors are part of and contribute to territorial and tourism transitions of mountain resorts in the Pyrenees.

Diversifying tourism in the mountains

Problems started arising in winter sports stations in the 1980s, with consecutive “snowless winters”, a drop in tourism, and changing trends in tourist demand, ultimately leading to a halt in the expansion of ski resorts in favour of managing existing ones. In such a context of uncertainty, tourism diversification asserted itself in the 2000s as a way to depend less on skiing and respond to new tourist demands. The researchers studied the process of diversification in the tourism sector in the Alps and Massif Central, and put their work into perspective with the situation in Occitanie.

Looking back over several years, they observed that tourism diversification in mountain ranges relies mainly on fairly similar activities and services. Outdoor activities (hiking and cycling, for example) are the main ones being developed. The diversification may require the creation of equipment and new infrastructure, such as museums and water parks, which in turn require investments in the tourism sector and strong backing from local authorities. Going forward, the goal is to tailor the tourist offering of a resort in its territory to a specific activity, by highlighting its distinguishing features and history in order to stand out from the competition. Another dimension involves the capacity of diversification of the tourist offering to generate lasting economic – but also social and environmental – benefits.

In the current context of climate change, the diversification of activities is an avenue of adaptation that mountain resorts are exploring, in addition to making the operation of ski stations more reliable. These adaptation strategies, often presented jointly in resorts, bear witness to transition processes underway. These processes go beyond the tourism sector (relocating agricultural and artisanal activity, changing lifestyles and ways of getting around, etc.) and involve a host of actors with different points of view. The challenge for mountain territories is now to bring those actors together in order to identify and pave the way forward for the territory as a whole. In this framework, research and scientific expertise can contribute to the understanding of tourist and territorial transition processes in resorts and offer local actors the support they need.

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