Scottish ski resorts hit by snow shortage

Operators facing losses as thaw takes hold, reports John Arlidge
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The Independent Online
TWO weeks after some of the heaviest snowfalls this century, Scotland's skiing industry is in crisis. Although thousands of skiers took to the pistes after the Christmas blizzards, numbers fell sharply last week. Resort operators, who invested pounds 2m in new lifts and runs last summer hoping for a record winter season, now face huge losses.

The problem is a traditional one north of the border: the weather. Although more than 2ft of snow fell across the Highlands and Islands over Christmas, it did not settle in the west, where Scotland's highest resorts lie. While Shetlanders battled through 30ft snow drifts, skiers and snowboarders at Aonach Mor and Glencoe, near Fort William, found themselves struggling through a mixture of powder snow, slush and heather.

Some snow did settle in the east, encouraging thousands of skiers to postpone their winter breaks and head for the hills. But during last week's big thaw most of the snow melted. In the Cairngorm resorts of the Lecht, Aviemore and Glenshee, fewer than one-third of pistes were open yesterday. The snow is still turning to slush and warm southerly winds threaten to bring the season to an abrupt halt this week.

As skiers make for the Continent, Scottish resort operators who have opened for business as early as October in the past are cursing the clouds.

David Stewart, executive director of Glenshee Chairlift Company which has invested more than pounds 250,000 in the Glenshee and Glencoe resorts, said: "We have had a very disappointing start.

"Bookings are up this year - particularly from south of the border - but, unfortunately, we do not have the product to support the bookings. We do not have enough of the white stuff and there is nothing we can do about it."

It is a bitter blow for all five Scottish resorts, which invested heavily last year in new pistes and lifts. With the 1993 and 1994 seasons among the best on record, operators had hoped the new spending would tempt up to one-third of Britain's two million skiers to abandon the Continent and try the hills at home this year. So far, however, only 50,000 people have made the journey. With car parks empty and gondolas swinging idly in the wind, many resorts now face cutbacks and job losses.

Worst hit is Aonach Mor, Scotland's highest resort, where Alison Hargreaves, the climber who died last year, skied regularly. There, managers invested almost pounds 1m to double the ski area and build new lifts, hoping for an early December start to the season.

Skiing did begin - just - with the traditional kilted ski race last month, but now only the dry slope is open. It is the same story in nearby Glencoe, where there has been no skiing at all.

Sitting in the deserted, wind-blasted Rob Roy bar at the foot of the slopes of 4,000ft Aonach Mor, Cally Fleming, a manager at Nevis Range, the company that operates the resort, said: "Last year we attracted 90,000 skiers and we need to get an extra 12,000 this year alone to justify the new investment. Christmas should have been our busiest time.

"Last year we had up to 3,000 people a day - some of the highest numbers for years. We really needed a good start this season but so far it hasn't happened."

Until this year, Scottish skiing, which began in the early Sixties, had grown steadily. Last year more than 500,000 people took to the pistes. The industry is vital to the Highlands, employing up to 3,000 people and injecting more than pounds 30m into the local economy each year. Operators have tackled the problem of under-investment but the vagaries of the weather remain, with some now fearing that global warming threatens the future of the entire industry.

But, as they pray for more snow, operators are refusing to give up hope. Two years ago the season continued beyond the spring, with skiers taking to the slopes of Aonach Mor in May. "It may be a late start but every season is different," Ms Fleming said, "With luck, and a cold spring, the pistes will be be full on May Day."