An online observatory for winter sports resorts

Alpine resorts are growing: tourism is evolving, along with snow cover, built up areas, ski lifts, etc. To improve our understanding, the Winter Sports Resorts Observatory (Observatoire des stations de sports d'hiver) was created. The observatory will compile various data to improve descriptions and comparisons of these resorts. The aim is to guide public policy to develop these hubs of mountain tourism.

What could future Alpine winter sport resorts look like ? Current resorts are faced with several challenges: climate change, developments in the tourism market, equipment renewal, etc. "Alpine resorts must also deal with aging housing stock: there is a regular shortage of beds to meet the needs of vacationers, which leads to an automatic decrease in stays. However, these stays are essential as they fund the upkeep and development of the ski lifts and more generally contribute to the economic impact of tourism and the dynamism of the resort," explains Hugues François, researcher in regional development specializing in issues relating to mountain resorts at the Irstea Grenoble center.

Despite these challenges, there are no knowledge tools to guide public policy for these mountain tourist hubs. To fix this issue, the Winter Sports Resorts Observatory was created by the Irstea Grenoble center, following a request by the Alpine Massif Committee (Comité de Massif des Alpes). This center can supply an objective and dynamic overview of Alpine tourism at any moment. It aims to describe the different resorts to facilitate comparison and guide public policy choices across the region.

An Alpine resort database

Using Irstea's expertise in Alpine environment research, the main aim of the observatory is to collect a variety of data relating to resort health (buildings, age of ski lifts, altitude, snow fronts, etc.). The data are then compiled into the BD Stations resort database. To evaluate the data, an Atlas of Alpine resorts was distributed in 2012. This atlas describes the resorts using a variety of parameters, such as skiable areas, governance, local issues and the environment. In order to ensure easy use of the tool by stakeholders and to encourage dialogue, an interactive version called Stationoscope has been developed and is freely accessible online. In addition to being regularly updated, an original analysis module has been added which, for example, can provide a data summary focused on any given area. This is an interesting option for regional managers and other public and private decision-makers.

Examining ski lift management

Among the significant data collected by the observatory is information relating to ski lift management models. "This is a public service that is the responsibility of local towns. But they are managed in very different ways," notes the researcher. Thus, ski lifts can be managed directly by local towns, a group of towns, the department or a manager who will run the lifts on behalf of the local community. The Alpe d'Huez resort is a notable example: SATA (Alpe d'Huez and Grandes Rousses Tourism Development Company - Société d'Aménagement Touristique Alpe d'Huez et des grandes Rousses) was awarded the ski lift and slope contract for 5 towns in the skiable area, although since 2013 two further towns have chosen to award their contracts to a local public corporation. "The Winter Sports Resorts Observatory will look at ski lift management to study the link between management model used and unity among resort administrations with the eventual aim of reorienting it," explains François.

Comparing resorts and planning their development

Faced with this organizational complexity, the project undertaken by the Winter Sports Resorts Observatory is crucial: prior to the BD Stations database, no information system had ever cross-referenced municipal data, such as the data provided by INSEE, with data linked to the administrative organization of the resorts and commercial and technical data on ski lifts or information on the real estate market. The situation of these resorts is now much better understood.

"All the avenues we have explored and that we continue to explore lead to a comprehensive comparison of the resorts and should therefore help the decision-making process used to develop these changing Alpine tourist hubs," concludes François. After the Alps, experts are hoping to adapt tools developed as part of the Observatory to other French mountain ranges.

The Observatory is also a place for researchers to share information

In addition to providing a current overview of the resorts, the Observatory will support the exchange of information among researchers. With the aim of predicting the future, a collaboration with the French Center for Studies of Snow and Weather (CEN / CNRM-GAME) was set up to study the effects of climate change. Researchers participating in this project decided to use the SAFRAN-CROCUS snow cover model by cross referencing it with spatial data from the BD Stations database. Cross-referencing information in this way helps to estimate the amount of snow on the ground in the resorts and, eventually, to model the potential skiable area for each resort. "The aim is to be able to compare the current skiable area with that which the resorts could develop. This would also allow us to identify risks linked to existing skiable areas, such as areas with poor long-term snow cover which would benefit from artificial snow cover. Long-term, the idea would be to offer development scenarios for resorts, which can then base policy decisions on these results," specifies Hugues François.

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