The future of Scottish ski resorts hangs in the balance as they confront two starkly different scenarios for the winter to come. On the one hand, they might see record visitor numbers as British skiers head north as an alternative to the Alps; on the other, continued local restrictions could leave them facing prolonged closure and financial struggles.
This week the French, Italian and German authorities announced they would not open their ski resorts until January at the earliest, and called for other European Alpine nations to make the same commitment. Scotland’s five resorts could be beneficiaries of this but travel restrictions currently forbid residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland from travelling north of the border. And those in Scottish areas categorised as “protection level” – which includes Edinburgh and Glasgow – are not allowed to leave their local area for tourism, so would not be able to visit the Highland resorts. Scottish operators hope the restrictions will be lifted soon, but Nevis Range has already announced it will remain closed until at least February.
“There is certainly a big demand for skiing and snowboarding at the moment,” said Andy Meldrum, majority owner of Glencoe, Scotland’s oldest and steepest resort, “and it is likely to be even bigger than normal this year due to the staycation effect.”
The Cairngorms National Park Authority board convener Xander McDade said: “Skiers coming to the park to enjoy winter sports and spend money locally will be welcomed with open arms,” adding that it would bring a much-needed boost to the local economy. Although the summer season was busier than usual this year, lockdowns meant it was much shorter, and insufficient to counterbalance the negative financial impact of the pandemic.
All Scottish ski resorts are introducing new health and safety measures in case they are swamped by skiers missing their usual foreign trip. There will be limits on the number of people allowed on the slopes each day, and social distancing on lifts, in queues and on the mountain.
Cairngorm Mountain’s interim chief executive Susan Smith said the resort was doing everything possible to remain Covid-secure and would be more cautious than in previous years with the numbers of skiers and snowboarders allowed on-site each day. “This is difficult to predict and depends on snow conditions, number of lifts operating, the day’s weather and so on,” she added.
Glencoe will limit the number of skiers on the mountain to 500 per day. Meldrum said the fact that lifts are open-air and only take two people per chair means he is “extremely confident we can provide a very safe environment for much-needed outdoor exercise”.
At Glenshee, in the eventuality poor snowfall means only lower runs that use manufactured snow-cannon snow can open, ticket sales will be limited to 150 a day.
Cairngorm plans to introduce an online ticket system for advance bookings and ski hire, and will move some of its ski-hire off-site, where people could collect skis the evening before. People will be advised to only share two- and three-man chairlifts and T-bar lifts with people in their bubble.
Nevertheless, for now, only those living in Scotland’s local authority areas in protection levels 1-2 will be able to enjoy the slopes, said Steve Duncan, senior regional planning manager for VisitScotland. “Although we understand the reasons for the new restrictions, this is difficult for the industry at the point they were looking to gain income during the winter holidays and ski season,” he said.
There are around a quarter of a million skier days each winter in Scotland, injecting almost £31m into the local economy, according to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre’s last report in 2018.
VisitScotland estimate that for every £1 spent on Scottish slopes, a further £4 was spent in the areas around Cairngorm, Glencoe, Glenshee, Nevis Range and the Lecht.
The resorts desperately need a good season this winter, as closing early last March was disastrous for their finances.
“Lockdown in March was pretty horrific,” said Meldrum, boss of Glencoe, which usually stays open into May. “We shut on the 23 March and then experienced six weeks of bluebird conditions and perfect all-over snow cover right through until early May. This has had a significant impact on the businesses ability to invest.”
Early closing cost the resort £750,000, money which was supposed to help rebuild the mountain cafe which burnt down on Christmas Day last year.
Other resorts say plans and investments would have to be put on hold if the season is a flop. Kate Hunter, ski patrol director at Glenshee, said: “If we were unable to open this season we would survive with financial help, but any planned projects would be put on hold until better times”.
Cairngorm Mountain Resort, which is owned by public body the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, will go ahead with repairs to its funicular, which has been closed since September 2018, after securing £16m of government funding last month. The government found it would cost more to remove the railway. Work has begun but will be paused over the winter and completed next year in time for the 2021/22 season.
Scotland’s outlook will depend somewhat on what happens at continental resorts. Austria and Switzerland have intimated they will not agree to demands by the leaders of France, Italy and Germany to keep ski resorts closed until at least January in a bid to stop skiers flocking to those that remain open, potentially spreading and importing the virus. Some resorts, such as Verbier in Switzerland, are already operating.
But the fact remains that none of the main Alpine ski destinations are on the travel corridors list, and even the new “test and release” system, cutting quarantine from 14 to five days for those willing to pay for a private test, is unlikely to be enough to salvage the overseas ski holiday market until a vaccine is rolled out — something the ski industry only dares to hope will happen in time for Easter.
One argument for keeping ski resorts closed in the Alps is to relieve pressure on health systems that receive an annual spike from injured skiers, but this isn’t deemed a significant problem in Scotland’s resorts. Meldrum argues the positive health benefits of being active in the mountains outweigh risks: “A bigger challenge in Scotland than Covid at the moment is mental health, and for many people it will be absolutely vital they can get safely out into the mountains this winter.”
With the best snow usually falling from late January-April there is plenty of time to go, and anyone planning a trip should see VisitScotland for updates on restrictions and snow conditions, and monitor resort websites for further updates.
Those living in England might find an alternative at one of several small ski clubs which set up temporary draglifts in the North Pennines when there’s snow, and which are also predicting a busy season ahead.
“The four northern snow skiing clubs [Yad Moss, Allenheads, Weardale and the Lake District] usually have a reciprocal agreement for their season ticket holders to ski for a reduced rate at each others’ facilities. This year, however, that has been suspended in the possibility that weekends might get too busy,” said Peter Stockton, chair of Yad Moss in Cumbria, which opened on eight days last winter. “There might be more interest in English skiing this year but we are still dependent on the snow actually falling in sufficient quantity to at least partly cover the grass!” he said.