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Europe's ski industry aims to save during the energy crisis

December 12, 2022

Slower cable cars and less heating are some of the ways ski resorts in Austria and Germany are adapting to the energy crisis. Higher costs also mean higher prices.

A person skiis in powdery snow in Ischgl.
Image: Tourismusverband Ischgl

Günther Zangerl, CEO of Silvrettaseilbahn AG, a mountain cable car company in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl, doesn't beat around the bush: "You can't argue away the fact that we are a major energy consumer and are therefore subject to critical scrutiny." His company's A1 cable car in Austria's fourth-largest ski area transports up to 3,440 passengers per hour and has eight high-powered motors.

For each lift, which the company describes as "a powerhouse," the energy consumption is high. This has drawn criticism in light of the current energy crisis in Europe. The Austrian government recently called on citizens to reduce their energy consumption by 11% as part of its "Mission 11” energy saving plan.

As a result, Ischgl is also changing the way things are done this season. In light of the energy crisis, one now wonders how energy efficient it is to soar up to six meters (19 feet) per second on a cable car with heated seats and then glide back down on a slope covered with artificially made snow. Günther Zangerl also sees the contradiction: "We are expected to make a contribution" he says.

People in a crowded bar with the mountains in the background in Ischgl.
Ski resorts, like Ischgl in Austria have come under scrutiny for their use of energy in this time of crisis Image: Johann Groder/EXPA/APA/picturedesk/picture alliance

Sacrificing comfort for savings

The cable cars will therefore run at slower speeds, the use of lighting will be reduced, and the seat heaters will be switched off. "These are things we have always done," says Zangerl, "but this year we are paying special attention." At the spa owned by the company, the outdoor pool will stay cold. Heating the water to over 30 degrees Celsius (86°F) when the air temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius (-4°F) simply consumes too much energy, he says. "Overall, we can save about 10% without guests having to sacrifice comfort."

The winter sports industry in particular has come under fire for making artificial snow, which consumes a large amount of energy. In Ischgl, snowmaking machines account for about 40% of the total energy demand, Zangerl estimates. At the same time, however, little can be spared in this area since the slopes have to be well covered in order to ski in the first place.

Günther Zangerl speaking.
Günther Zangerl of Silvrettaseilbahn cable car company admits energy saving measures must be taken this winterImage: Johann Groder/EXPA/APA/picturedesk/picture alliance

The Association of Cable Cars in the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber aims to put the figures into perspective. The electricity demand of all cable cars in Austria accounts for just 1.2 percent of the country's total energy consumption, they say. At the same time, the industry provides 125,900 jobs, and winter sports enthusiasts generate sales of 11.2 billion euros ($11.7 billion) per year. "Making snow is essential for tourism," says Franz Hörl, a Austrian People's Party member and chairman of the trade association. "Because just as the conveyor belt is important for manufacturing, the slopes are essential to winter tourism.”

An 'emotionally charged' discussion

A similar argument is made just across the German border in Oberstdorf, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Ischgl as the crow flies. "The Bergbahns' share of total electricity consumption is extremely low, but the value added in rural areas is extremely high," says Henrik Volpert, CEO of the local Bergbahn lift and cable car company. The discussion about energy consumption is "very emotionally charged," he says. "If we're talking about technical efficiency, as well as social efficiency, then the energy that our companies need to use is very well invested," he thinks. Nevertheless, his company is also planning to cut costs during the upcoming winter season. In Oberstdorf, as in Ischgl, the cable cars will run more slowly when passenger volume permits, and the seat heaters will be switched off.

People on the slopes of Ischgl with cable cars in view.
Ischgl will run its cable cars at a slightly slower speed and seats will not be heatedImage: picture-alliance/imageBroker

The company is going one step further in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, where the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn mountain railway company operates, transporting ski vacationers to the slopes of the Garmisch Classic ski area, among others. The company plans to save on snowmaking this winter, says Bayerische Zugspitzbahn Bergbahn AG spokeswoman Verena Tanzer. Artificial snow will only be used where it is absolutely necessary.

Contributing to reducing energy consumption is something she considers par for the course. ”My impression is that the entire leisure industry is under scrutiny," Tanzer says. "A closer look is being taken because, well, we aren't systemically important." As a result, she says the industry is being put to the test. One consequence of this scrutiny is that this winter, even the usual outdoor heaters at the bars of the skiing area will be turned off. "That's really pure luxury, sitting under a heater in minus 15 degrees Celsius (4 °F)," she says. In total, the company says its energy savings will be 10%.

Energy costs rise

Skiers will not only have to dress warmer this winter, however, they will also have to pay more. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, ski passes will cost around 10% more this year. In addition, parking spaces in the valley will no longer be free. However, spokesperson Verena Tanzer says that neither of these measures is directly related to the energy crisis, but had been in the works for some time.

Snow machines blowing out newsly made snow on a ski slope.
Making snow is a major energy guzzler, such as here in Garmisch Classic ski areaImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

According to Franz Hörl from the Austrian Cable Car Association, the price increases are "within the range of inflation." If the new prices had been made based on the high energy costs, prices would have been significantly higher, he says. "Here, however, the industry made a clear commitment to prevent this, keeping families and children in mind especially."

Günther Zangerl in Ischgl, meanwhile, has raised the prices for ski passes significantly this year. "We have not been able to pass on the inflation 1 to 1," he says. In the meantime, energy costs at his company have quadrupled, he says. "But the development must be reflected in the prices." This year, vacationers will pay 11-13% more to get on the slopes.

This article was translated from German.

Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent