Facing a Changing Climate: French Mountain Resorts Reimagine Tourism

May 31, 2024

This year, two public reports on the future of mountain resorts hit the headlines in France. The report by the Cour des Comptes (*) and the report by the French MP Joel Giraud.

The Cour des Comptes report:
On 6 February 2024, the Cour des Comptes published its report on mountain resorts and climate change. The report was fiercely criticised by the French ski industry lobby for its blunt assessment of the future of the French ski business model. A total of 42 resorts – spread across the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central and the Jura – were audited. In addition, a database of 200 resorts was compiled, enabling a more exhaustive statistical analysis to be carried out.

The report’s four main conclusions are as follows:
• The French ski business model is running out of steam
• Significant and growing public subsidies are in danger of locking local authorities into a dependency on skiing.
• Adaptation policies fall short of what is needed.
• Current governance does not allow mountain stakeholders to adapt to the realities of climate change at the scale of a relevant territory.

In the light of these findings, it puts forward six major recommendations:
1. Set up a national observatory bringing together all the data on vulnerability in mountain areas, accessible to all local players.
2. Develop the regulatory framework so that authorisations for water abstraction for snow production take account of climate forecasts.
3. Formalise plans for adapting to climate change, based on the mountain plans provided for in the French Climate and Resilience law.
4. Make all public support for investment in ski resorts conditional on the content of climate change adaptation plans.
5. Establish a form of governance for mountain resorts that is no longer solely the responsibility of local authorities.
6 . Set up a climate change adaptation fund to finance diversification measures and the deconstruction of obsolete facilities, financed by the tax on ski lifts.

The Giraud report.
The Fabrique des transitions is one of the stakeholders interviewed by French Member of Parliament (and former minister) Joël Giraud, who was asked by the former French prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, to draw up a report on adapting mountain areas to climate change.

The report makes 34 proposals for shaping the French mountains of tomorrow. These proposals concern housing, transport, water, finances. It classifies resorts into three categories:
• those who will have to give up skiing in the next few years ;
• those that will have to forego expansion and reduce their ski area by 2030;
• and finally, those at high altitude or in cool areas, which could survive after 2050.

Stop skiing, yes, but to do what? This is the question that haunts the resorts. Joël Giraud suggests turning to more sustainable economic models, like those in Austria and Slovenia, based on mountain resources. He advocates developing the recognition and protection of local quality products, particularly those produced by agriculture, because they enable farmers to make a living from their own income. Alongside agriculture, wood is another resource that needs to be invested in. Forestry in the French mountains is the largest in Europe: “Yet we are the last country in Europe in terms of exports and added value. We need to change this whole economy”.

As far as water management is concerned, we need to create upstream-downstream solidarity through a water tax. This financial contribution from downstream would make it possible to perpetuate water management in the mountains, which must continue to play its role as a water supplier.
Finally, in his report, Giraud looks at the issue of housing and calls for a moratorium on new construction: “We need to renovate rather than build”.

These two reports raise fundamental questions and should be debated in all mountain areas. They suggest that the financial resources earmarked for the ski industry should be reused to invest in collective intelligence processes emanating from the regions. Engineering resources must be allocated to this task without delay. Public authorities have a central role to play in supporting local areas in these transitions. Public money must be used to support change, rather than getting bogged down in short-term solutions.

(*) The Cour des Comptes is a financial court of administrative jurisdiction in France, responsible for auditing the accounts of the State, national public establishments, public companies, the social security system and private bodies receiving State aid or making appeals to the generosity of the public. It informs Parliament, the Government and the general public about the regularity of the accounts.