Your cultural guide to the 2023 Tour de France: stage 14

As we enter the Alps, José takes a look at the fraught future of the local ski resorts.

Image: Daniel Frank/Unsplash

For every stage of the 2023 Tour de France – men’s and women’s – José Been is bringing you stories about the history, castles, geology, culture, food, and people around the race. A bit of couleur locale while you enjoy lush fields of sunflowers, beautiful mountains, and pretty little villages, oh, and the bike race too.

We have entered the realm of Alpine cheeses. There is so much cheese to enjoy in the region, in both summer and winter. Cheese is an important part of the diet for those who ski and snowboard, which I do not. Sports involving gravity and slipperiness are bad for my health. I just do the cheese.

Anyway, where the race goes today is where we find ski slopes and apres-ski during the winter time. I am sure the apres-ski will survive but skiing in the Alps is becoming more problematic every year due to climate change. Around Christmas last year half of the French ski resorts were closed due to a lack of snow. This goes especially for the lower areas like Mont Dore in the Massif Central but the resorts in the Alps also had to postpone the start of the winter sports season in 2022.

It’s a global problem. According to the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, by 2050 between 50-60% of winter sports areas in Europe will no longer exist. The IOC fears that winter sports will also disappear with the ski resorts. It was decided this year to make real winter weather a condition for the allocation of Winter Olympics, unlike in China where the snow was man-made. The problem: there are only a handful of suitable cities left.

Back to the French Alps. Winter sports are big business. There are around 10 million tourists coming to France or from within France to the ski resorts every year. It’s a €10 billion-a-year business with over 120,000 jobs involved. At the moment it’s the ski areas at a lower altitude that face being closed down. The ski station of La Sambuy, which we will pass on Sunday, decided last month that it will cease operations. The three ski lifts will be dismantled. 

Like many areas in the French Alps, and across Europe, it’s not profitable to keep infrastructure going when there is no natural snow. When there is no snow, there are no tourists, making it even less profitable to keep facilities open. It’s a catch-22 situation. The result is that these resorts become like the ghost towns we see during summer in the winter time as well.  

The bigger and higher areas can try artificial snow but that is not really good for the real snow and even then, you need temperatures around freezing to keep the snow … snowy. Using snow cannons leaves a big carbon footprint. It costs lots of water and energy to keep the slopes white. You can’t create the water reservoirs in summer because the summers in France will be drier and drier too. It’s a vicious cycle. 

The ski resorts will gradually have to shift their business focus to other things than winter sports. Cycling is one of the growth markets but also wellness, hiking, eco-tourism, and a focus on the local and regional food culture … which brings us back to cheese. 

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