In Klosters, three weeks before Christmas, only one thing is missing – snow
One of the favoured haunts of Britain’s rich and famous is suffering, like the rest of the Alps, from mild weather. And with a strong Swiss franc, the cost of winter sports is soaring
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Klosters. Everywhere you go the festive season is evident. Fairy lights twinkle in the trees that hug the Swiss ski resort’s main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse. Illuminated Santas can be spied abseiling down the front of the chalets nestling at the foot of the glowering mountains. Wickerwork reindeer graze in shop windows.
And yet something is missing: snow. The only white stuff to be found in the town is of the spray-on variety. Snow shovels and sledges stand idly outside hardware stores waiting forlornly for customers, like the last turkeys in the shop. Snowgear outlets are offering 30% off snowshoes.
“I was five the last time we had a start to a season like this,” said Carina, a 31-year-old shopkeeper.
The Ski Club of Great Britain is also struggling for context. “This is an exceptional start to the season,” said Vicky Norman, its PR manager. “In our snow records [which stretch back 18 seasons] we cannot see another season when there has been such a mild and dry start.”
Up high, the snow cannons are spewing out fake snow, but lower down it melts too quickly to make the artificial option viable. Only two of the resort’s five mountains have managed to open and they offer just a few runs. It is a far cry from last year, when Klosters opened for business on 5 November.
“It was the driest November here for 150 years, since records began,” conceded Markus Unterfinger, head of communications for the resort. “And we’ve had the lowest amount of rainfall for a whole autumn since 1957.”
The acute absence of snow has given the town a quiet, contemplative air. On Friday afternoon there were no shoppers to be found in its elegant boutiques and jewellery shops. Ski hire staff paced around waiting for customers. The Rolex concession was doing little business.
In the Swiss Ski and Snowboard School, its assistant director, Christian Rogantini, was putting on a brave face. “There is not much snow but the conditions are awesome; the slopes that are open are really well groomed.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the next few days were critical. “We had snow in August and a good load in October but it melted away. But if there’s no snow for Christmas, then we will have a problem.”
This would dismay the estimated 3,000 Britons who visit the picture-perfect resort each winter, exhibiting the sort of loyalty normally only found in migratory birds.
Financier Nat Rothschild has his main residence in the resort. The banking scion has been seen driving around Klosters’ twisting roads in a vintage Ferrari with his friend Peter Mandelson.
Famous ski season regulars include Prince Charles and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Last week Klosters found itself dragged into a class war when Ed Miliband reminded the British public that George Osborne, whose family skiing holidays reportedly cost £11,000, is also a visitor.
If the chancellor ventures to Klosters this winter, it is unlikely that he will be able to leave the cares and concerns of his day job completely behind. Osborne and the world’s financiers and CEOs, who meet every year in the neighbouring resort of Davos, will know better than most that it is not just the absence of snow that is keeping people away fromSwitzerland‘s slopes at the moment.
Unterfinger concedes that the strength of the Swiss franc, seen by investors as a safe haven during the euro’s travails, is also a mounting concern for the hoteliers of Klosters.
“Holidays in Switzerland have become 25% more expensive for people in the EU compared with last year,” Unterfinger said. “This will influence the number of people who come to Switzerland. We hope to give good value for money, but if a currency rises by 25%, people will go to other places. We can’t reduce our prices.”
Figures out last week revealed that Switzerland’s economy grew at the slowest pace in more than two years in the third quarter, as companies cut spending and exports slumped, thanks to the strength of the franc.
Between July and September, gross domestic product increased by just 0.2% compared with the previous quarter, which saw a 0.5% rise, according to the state secretariat for economic affairs. More than 10,000 jobs have been axed by Swiss firms since the summer.
Already, the new exchange rate has had a discernible effect in Klosters. The resort, which is popular with hikers and mountain bikers between May and September, saw a 15% decline in the number of summer visitors from the EU. Now, in the run-up to Christmas, Klosters is hitting back, offering free lift passes to visitors who stay in its hotels.
It is a sign of the tough times the Swiss tourist industry is feeling. But it is of little comfort to the town’s hoteliers that they are not alone in feeling the pinch. “Austria, France, Italy, Scandinavia – we all face an exceptional weather situation,” Unterfinger said.
The upmarket French resort of Val d’Isère, which generally boasts some of the best snow cover in the Alps, has no snow on its lower pistes and has been forced to postpone its prestigious downhill event that traditionally opens the European ski season. Meanwhile, openings of resorts across Andorra have been postponed by at least a week.
The near 1.1 million Britons who venture on to the slopes each year are being advised to head to North America if they want a pre-Christmas skiing break. Resorts from New England to California were already open last weekend.
But this option is unlikely to be too popular with many Britons. Each year only around 40,000 Britons make it over the Atlantic for their skiing. More than 400,000 go to France, while 250,000 opt for Austria and 150,000 plump for Italy. Despite the chancellor’s best efforts to publicise the delights of Switzerland, only around 75,000 Britons ski in the country each year.
And it would be wrong to write off Europe‘s season so early. “There is a lack of snow cover lower down in the Alps but snow is forecast over the coming weeks and this should dramatically improve conditions,” said the Ski Club of Great Britain’s Vicky Norman.
The message is one of stoicism. People should just hold their nerve. “People get a little bit nervous when we don’t have a load of snow in November,” Rogantini of Swiss Ski and Snowboard School in Klosters admitted.
Things can change quickly in the Alps. In Klosters yesterday there was optimistic talk of serious amounts of snow coming in. “The long-term forecast says that around 10 or 11 December a weather front is coming in that will bring snow for the next two weeks,” Unterfinger said. “After the driest November we could soon have an awful lot of snow.”
This would bring welcome relief to resorts across the Alps. Amid increasingly pessimistic talk of a double dip, they need their equivalent of the eurozone’s “big bazooka”. As the song goes: “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
- In Klosters, three weeks before Christmas, only one thing is missing – snow (guardian.co.uk)
- Swiss ski resorts hit by drought (bbc.co.uk)
- Snow is a no-show at Swiss ski resorts (guardian.co.uk)
- Swiss ski season’s start stalled by snow shortage (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- No snow? Ski season in Switzerland stalled (msnbc.msn.com)
- Swiss resorts in uphill battle over no snow, franc (msnbc.msn.com)
- Swiss ski season’s start stalled by snow shortage (seattlepi.com)
- Swiss Ski Season’s Start Stalled by Snow Shortage (foxnews.com)
- Skiing price war breaks out (telegraph.co.uk)
- Survey finds Switzerland tops for hitting the slopes | British Airways – Travel Industry News (travelnews.britishairways.com)