GENEVA — The past few Alpine ski seasons melted away under the presence of global warming, as balmy conditions raised fears about the future of Europe's fabled winter resorts.
During winter 2008-2009, the Alps are blessed with abundant snow, bright skies, and perfect powder, but there's little cheer as resorts feel the pinch from a new threat: the global financial crisis.
Economic gloom and fluctuating exchange rates are weighing heavily across the Alps, making resort operators nervous. The upside for skiers and snowboarders may be cheaper offers for lift tickets and lodging in what promises to be a year of top conditions on the slopes.
"Mother Nature is at least on our side", said Daniel Luggen, head of tourism in Zermatt, Switzerland, which sits just below the famous Matterhorn peak. "There's no panic about the financial crisis, but there's concern of course. You think about it when you read the news everyday".
Zermatt, with its legions of loyal visitors, is likely to be spared a drop in hotel bookings this season, Luggen said. But others will not be so lucky.
A Swiss study is predicting a 2.4 percent fall in overnight stays across the country this winter, and Switzerland Tourism says the decline will be steeper if the nation's appreciating currency, a result of global market turmoil, continues its upward swing.
Spokeswoman Edith Zweifel said a 10 percent rise in the Swiss franc against the euro would translate into a 7 percent drop in hotel bookings as European Union residents, the top tourists in Switzerland, seek cheaper options elsewhere or stay at home.
She said the pain is starting in January after the Christmas season and its millions of advance bookings and paid reservations. Resorts are seeking last-minute arrangements that are more dependent on cash in the consumer's pocket.
"Starting in the second half of January people will be more sensitive to the amount of money they can spend each day", Zweifel said. "That means the resorts, the hotels, the tourist operators have to come up with the right offers".
The concerns reflect the fears of the tourism sector as a whole, which is suffering from declining hotel occupancy rates and air travel. The global hotel industry is anticipating a dismal fourth quarter and a very uncertain 2009.
Ski resorts in Austria expect fewer Americans and Britons, and a leveling off of Arab and Russian tourists known for their lavish spending, said Stefan Bracher, spokesman for the Kitzbuehel-based Eurotours.
There are some signs of cautious optimism.
In Italy, resort operators hope the high number of Italians owning ski chalets will be an important factor, even if the crisis forces some to cut back on days off from work.
Many Italians "don't have to pay for hotels. This definitely helps us", said Gianfranco Talamini, director of a Skipass office in Cortina d'Ampezzo, northern Italy.
And in France, there is little to no talk of the financial crisis. The number of foreigners at French ski stations is expected to rise at least 5 percent during the 2008-2009 winter, according to Christian Rochette, director of Ski France International. Jacques Guillot, vice president of Ski France, said overall bookings are up from the 2007-2008 winter.
But it is more difficult to predict how shops and restaurants will withstand cut bonuses, fortunes lost in the stock market and general economic uncertainty.
"People who have booked their holidays will come, but we will have to see how much they spend when they get here", said Pierre-Yves Deleze, spokesman for Switzerland's high-end resort of Verbier.
Deleze said the US recession was not overly worrying because American tourists dwindled as a percentage for years, but feared the spread of economic slowdown.
"A British recession will be more significant, as well as a recession in all of Europe", Deleze said.
Luggen, in Zermatt, said the real crisis for mountain resorts may not emerge until summer, when visitors from Asia and the United States are more important. "Whenever there is a problem like war, recession or sickness, such as with SARS, people are afraid to travel", he said.
For now, resorts are hoping the conditions alone will convince many not to forgo winter vacation, especially after irregular snowfalls and warmer temperatures over the last couple of years led some to question the long-term viability of winter tourism in the region.
"We have snow in the mountains and in the flatlands", Luggen said. "People see that winter has arrived".
Text: Bradley S. Klapper, Frank Jordans, Valerio Penna, Veronika Oleksyn, Thierry Boinet / AP / Expatica 2009
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