As Christmas and New Year approach, ski resorts prepare for their busiest period. Downhill skiing remains an incredibly popular winter holiday, and some resorts do up to a third of their business during the festive season. But this is a problem, because often at this time of year, there’s no snow. In 2016, the Swiss Alps experienced the driest December on record since 1864.
For many resorts, the solution is simply to manufacture it. A BBC report suggested 50 per cent of Swiss slopes and 70 per cent in Austria can now be snowed artificially. This is terrible for the environment and, I believe, very far from an authentic winter holiday experience. That’s why at Responsible Travel, we’re determined to speak out about it.
The environmental impact of fake snow
Making fake snow is a huge undertaking, requiring vast amounts of water, taken from and degrading local watercourses, or drawn from specially built reservoirs which damage the mountain landscape. In addition, snow cannons eat up masses of energy. Swiss conservation group Pro Natura estimates that over a season it would be enough to fuel a small town.
The problem with responding to demand
In providing artificially snowy slopes, the skiing industry is responding to demand, rather than to the weather. Its focus on Christmas, when snowfall can be patchy, and on extending the season into Easter – which can fall in late April – drives the demand for fake snow. What nature can’t provide, the resorts will manufacture artificially.
I don’t feel it can ever be right for travel to be driven by human demand alone. We should travel to explore cultures and landscapes in their natural state – and respect that natural state – not in a manipulated guise that suits our expectations or calendar. The first skiers, over a century ago, would never have expected snow to be guaranteed from November to April. We shouldn’t either.
The role of climate change
Of course, we have to talk about climate change here, too. A 2016 study by the University of Neuchâtel and two Swiss research institutes showed that on average the snow season starts 12 days later and ends 25 days earlier than in 1970. Most resorts get round this by simply making the snow themselves, but this means downhill skiing is increasingly neither a responsible nor an authentic holiday. Rather than being in a natural environment, the skier is essentially in a manmade one.
Responsible Travel takes a stand against artificial snow
At Responsible Travel, our focus has always been on wilderness winter activities that – where possible – make the most of natural snow. These include cross country skiing, dog sledding, snow shoeing and wildlife tracking, with virtually no downhill skiing. A huge number of our winter snow holidays take place in Scandinavia, whose northerly latitudes mean snowfall is more probable.
In order to keep the use of snow cannons to a minimum, we now only promote winter holidays that either take place in locations where no fake snow is produced, or run at a time of year when the likelihood of snow being manufactured is low – in January or February, for instance.
We carefully screen the winter holidays we sell and for each one based in resorts which have the ability to create artificial snow, we’ll include a No Snow? box below the itinerary. This may suggest other fun activities available in the absence of real snow, and will outline the months when snowfall is most likely.
Why real snow is always best
Fake snow or no, skiing almost always impacts the environment. Wildlife is disturbed, trees cut down to create slopes and infrastructure installed that scars pristine mountain environments. Small scale holidays that take place in natural landscapes, without relying on fake snow or major infrastructure, are a responsible alternative that causes minimal environmental impact. These trips also provide the solitude and silence of a winter landscape rather than the bustle of popular ski slopes. This is why I believe that real snow, not fake snow, always provides a more authentic holiday experience, whether you’re skiing or not.