Alpine Competition

The uphill battle for downhill skiers

Zugspitze: Top of Germany mit neuer Rekord-Seilbahn
Voyage to the top of the world. Source: DPA

The inauguration this week of a faster, higher, bigger cable car on Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze in the Bavarian Alps, is the culmination of three years of planning and three more years of construction under extremely challenging conditions. The €50-million ($59-million) cable car, which can transport three times as many visitors as the one it replaces, is another sign of the stiff competition among Alpine ski resorts – not only with each other, but with the rest of the world.

While Europe’s Alpine mountain ranges and North American resorts attract the most skiers, there are now about 2,000 ski areas around the world in 67 countries, according to industry consultant Laurent Vanat. They host 400 million visitors for a day or longer each year, and they have 6 million beds available for guests. Alpine resorts are spending tens of millions to upgrade facilities and improve amenities just to keep up with the competition.

The opening of the new Zugspitze cable car – which boasts the highest support tower (127 meters or 417 feet), the longest span from base station to peak (3,213 meters), and the greatest difference in elevation from ground station (1,950 meters) – followed the debut last weekend of the world’s steepest funicular rail line in Switzerland. That €44.6 million project, serving the Stoos ski resort in central Switzerland, hauls visitors up gradients as steep as 110 percent (going 110 meters vertically while traveling 100 meters horizontally). An innovative barrel cabin design allows passengers to remain upright the entire trip. That product of Swiss engineering took 14 years.

“In many places, it is high time to wake up. The entire ski industry has to take better care of its customers.”

Laurent Vanat, ski industry consultant

But these costly projects pale in comparison to the €7 billion Austrian ski operators have invested since 2000. “The infrastructure there is really luxurious in comparison to other places,” said Mr. Vanat. Heated lifts with protective hoods have become standard across Austrian resorts and two-thirds of the resorts have artificial snow capacity.

To keep up with the neighbors, the engineers of the new Zugspitze cable car introduced some crowd-pleasing innovations. Heated glass walls from floor to ceiling of the cabin afford passengers a 360-degree vista. The cabins hold 120, three times as many as the previous cable car, sharply reducing the notoriously long lines at the ground station.

“In many places, it is high time to wake up,” said Mr. Vanat. “The entire ski industry has to take better care of its customers.” In spite of the improvements and global expansion of resorts, the number of skiers worldwide is stagnating and skewing older, with the average age in Austria, for instance, now at 39. Global warming, competition from ever more diverse tourist destinations, and the high costs of a skiing vacation – especially in Switzerland because of the pricey Swiss franc – are all given as reasons.

Remaining competitive requires continuous investment, which now extends to accommodations and restaurants capable of attracting tourists. “Whether the customer from Frankfurt flies to the US or travels by car to Sölden is no longer a time issue,” said Jack Falkner, cable car operator at the Tyrolean ski resort. “That creates pressure of course to constantly invest in technology, snowmaking and gastronomy.” He said Sölden has invested at least €100 million over the last five years. The Austrian industry as a whole invested €582 million last season in new facilities and snowmaking equipment.

Even with snowmaking equipment to extend the season, skiing may not be enough to make all this investment pay. “The Alpine resorts need a strategy for all four seasons,” said tourism consultant Franz Maximilian Schmid-Preissler. Swimming pools and whirlpool baths aren’t enough to lure tourists in the off-season, since these are available everywhere.

Leogang, a resort in Austria’s Pinzgau region, has developed a network of so-called “downhill trails” for mountain bikers to career down the mountainside once the snow has melted. This keeps the cable car running year-round and draws a younger crowd. Championship contests have earned the community a global reputation.

In spite of the challenges, however, the Alpine resorts continue to draw crowds. For one thing, European vacationers are avoiding some of the Mediterranean destinations – such as Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt – that used to be popular for fear of attacks. At the same time, booming economic conditions at home make them less parsimonious. Austria set new tourism records last winter with nearly 19 million arrivals and 69 million overnights and expects to at least match those levels this season.

Unlike some past years, the weather for this season has been favorable, so that the resorts are covered with snow in time for the Christmas holiday period. When winter comes later, the resorts miss out on the best chance to attract visitors when they can come for longer than a weekend. The ground station for the new Zugspitze cable car was snowed in and ideal powdery snow awaited the first passengers on the pistes.

Joachim Hofer and Hans-Peter Siebenhaar are reporters for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: hofer@handelsblatt.com, siebenhaar@handelsblatt.com and d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!