From Herald 10th November 2006
Skiing back on uphill course
AS the first snow fell on Aonach Mor mountain in the Nevis Range yesterday, Scotland's ski centres began preparing for the start of the season.
Despite the increasingly unpredictable weather and the rise of cheap flights to some of Europe's top winter destinations, industry experts are positive that they can continue to attract enthusiasts to the Scottish slopes.
Under the umbrella organisation of Ski Scotland, VisitScotland and Snowsportscotland, the five ski resorts are working together in their aim to promote Scotland as a premier winter sports destination.
With tubing, snowbikes and terrain parks on offer, each of the five centres - Nevis Range, Glencoe Mountain, Glenshee Ski Centre, Lecht 2090 and Cairngorm Mountain - are diversifying to bring in more customers.
Marian Austin, chairperson of Ski Scotland and managing director of Nevis Range, said ski resorts were facing their challenges head on.
"The numbers of skiers have always gone up and down, not because we don't have snow, but because people's habits are changing," she said.
"There was a time when people were struggling with the changes. But all the ski areas are now coming to terms with it and are adapting.
"There are lots of other activities on offer now, although everybody does want to continue skiing as part of the mix of what we have on offer."
Winter sports generate income of between £15m and £33m every year, although only 30% of that goes to the ski resorts themselves. The other 70% goes directly to the local economy through expenditure in hotels, restaurants and shops.
Research unveiled by VisitScotland yesterday showed that Glenshee and Cairngorm were the most popular resorts, attracting 30% and 27% of skiers respectively.
Two-thirds (66%) of people went skiing for one day, 27% made it part of a one to three night trip, while only 7% went for four or more nights.
But the success of the seasons still does depend on the weather and due to global warming, forecasters are predicting that 2006 will join the previous three years as one of the top four warmest years since records began.
For ski resorts, such as the Nevis Range, that poses its own challenges. Ms Austin said: "One of the things we struggle with slightly is people's perceptions that winter is now. Our winter is when snow builds up.
"Last year we had the latest start ever - in February. We had great skiing in March, even better in April and out into the beginning of May.
"One of the messages we'd like to get across is don't hang up your skis in April because that's when we had our best conditions last year. There is often snow on the mountains when it is spring in the cities."
It was on the more unusual landscape of the indoor SNO! zone at Xscape in Braehead, near Glasgow, that the 2006/07 winter sports season was launched yesterday by champion snowboarder Lesley McKenna.
She has tested the best slopes round the world and has also directed a series of films with ChunkyKnit productions on worldwide destinations, which this year included Scotland.
She added: "April was the first time I've been back to Scotland for any length of time and it was great, comparable with any other two weeks I have had anywhere in the world.
"The interest and enthusiasm in the scene is phenomenal. It is a case of plugging into that enthusiasm and the world's your oyster."
However, with the rise in cheap flights to Europe and skiing on the Alps only a short journey away, ski resorts in Scotland are facing direct competition from some of the world's top winter sports destinations.
It is a challenge which they are prepared to face by joining forces and together promoting Scotland as a first-class place to sample winter sports.
Kate Hunter, director of Glenshee Ltd, said: "Cheap flights may work in our favour. There are good, cheap flights from England to Scotland so we try to encourage people to fly up to Glasgow and Edinburgh and then hire a car.
"We are trying to impress on people the fact that by coming to Scotland they're not leaving such a big carbon footprint as if they went skiing to America or the Alps.
"People are beginning to think of that kind of thing.
"We all have to diversify and encourage Scotland as a visitor location with other things to do as well as skiing. Snow sports are there, but let's get everybody to Scotland, because it's a fantastic country."
Each of the resorts is also finding ways to transform into year-round destinations which have something to offer visitors regardless of the weather.
They are also diversifying to offer a range of activities to suit skiers, snowboarders and people who have never ventured onto the slopes. They include ski mountaineering, ice climbing, sled dog rides, quad biking, mountain biking and white water rafting.
Fiona Milligan, marketing executive of Cairngorm Mountain, said: "People's expectations are so much higher these days. As a country we need to offer people a much richer tableau of fun activities."
While the outdoor centres face their own challenges, Xscape's snow slope, which opened in April, has its own unique place in the Scottish skiing industry.
It is hoped that it will tap into the interest in winter sports, giving beginners the opportunity to learn and encouraging experienced skiers and snowboarders to get out on the slopes all year round.
Jane MacAdam, general manager of SNO! zone at Xscape, said: "We all pray that it's going to be a fantastic winter, but dependent on that, we can keep the interest there as well.
"We are also bringing a lot of new people, from children as young as three, into snow sports. For experienced skiers, they can come here to get their fix and maintain their interest during the summer months.
"It is never going to take away from people wanting to get out into the mountains. It is only going to feed that interest and get people into the sport.
"We have got five Scottish resorts. It would be fantastic for us to be called the sixth snow resort.""