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Ski resorts make sure warmer winters don't melt profits

THOUGH Slovak ski resorts do not have all the advantages of their mightier Alpine brothers, many Slovaks still spend their holidays there. So the state has a strategy to bring more domestic tourism to Slovakia's ski centres, and further investments are on the way.

Only high-altitude ski resorts are worth investing in, industry insiders say.
photo: Roman Millan

THOUGH Slovak ski resorts do not have all the advantages of their mightier Alpine brothers, many Slovaks still spend their holidays there. So the state has a strategy to bring more domestic tourism to Slovakia's ski centres, and further investments are on the way.

"Slovak ski resorts definitely have an important place in Slovak tourism development," said Gabriel Kuliffay, director of the tourism department at the Economy Ministry. "It would be a great mistake not to take advantage of the natural potential we have (for ski tourism)."

But Slovak ski resorts lack the higher altitude of resorts in the Alps, so mild weather can hurt them more.

"In terms of the expected climate change, the altitude of Slovak ski resorts is a factor that makes us think about what to do next," Kuliffay said.

It is not reasonable to invest a lot into local ski resorts with an altitude of 500 to 800 metres above sea level, according to Miroslav Grešo, director of Lavex - the cableway and lift operators' association.

"Only ski resorts with an altitude higher than 800 metres can secure a certain level of returns despite the shrinking number of colder days," Grešo said.

Resorts should be used at least six months a year, Grešo told The Slovak Spectator. If they are only used two months a year, the return on investments is very slow.

Apart from artificial snow-making, investments into additional services could also help keep visitors coming to Slovak ski resorts even when there is no snow.

"Building infrastructure that will encourage a visitor to stay, even if little snow or a mild weather will not allow him to ski, is one way," Kuliffay told The Slovak Spectator. "I'm talking about indoor pools, aquaparks, conference centres, tennis courts, entertainment centres and golf courses."

But Kuliffay warned that the quality of these services in Slovak ski resorts still does not often meet visitors' requirements.

"Here, cooperation with the local government, hotels and providers of other tourism services is crucial," Grešo said.

Slovakia currently has 20 mountain ski resorts with top equipment of an international standard, 40 mountain resorts with above-average equipment of a national standard, and about 250 mountain ski locations with average equipment of a local standard, according to the Economy Ministry.

Out of these, more than 90 resorts have artificial snow-making systems. In total, 150 kilometres of downhill and cross-country ski trails on an area of 750 hectares could be covered by artificial snow.

Looking at home and abroad

Despite milder weather, Slovak ski tourism's future got brighter after 2000, according to Lavex. Ski tourism stagnated in the 1990s, mainly because resorts did not have the financial means for upgrades. But since 2000, winter resort owners and operators have more or less invested in their resorts every year.

This year, most investments went into cableways and lifts - a total of Sk530 million (€15.9 million). Artificial snowmakers got about Sk255 million and vehicles used for maintaining ski trails got Sk106 million worth of investments.

Among the largest investments this year were the construction of cableways at five resorts (Jasná - Biela Púť, Banská Štiavnica - Hámre, Skalka, Oravský Podzámok and Mýto pod Ďumbierom), and the modernisation of the funicular from Starý Smokovec to Hrebienok in the High Tatras.

Slovakia should mainly focus on guests from countries that do not have many opportunities for skiing, whose residents are not usually demanding skiers, Kuliffay said. That includes Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania.

"A comprehensive range of facilities and services should be prepared for these target groups to encourage steady and regular attendance," Kuliffay added. "At the same time the principles of rural and environmental protection must be respected and anchored in related legislation."

Apart from that, the Slovak cabinet is trying to encourage Slovak tourists to holiday in Slovakia, including at Slovak ski resorts. Winter tourism is one of the crucial points outlined in the Tourism Development Strategy of the Slovak Republic to 2013.

Another tourism policy document recently approved by the government even suggested distributing recreation vouchers to Slovak employees to pay for their holidays if they opt for Slovak destinations over popular foreign resorts in places like Croatia, Greece or Italy.

The plan is to distribute vouchers for domestic holidays worth several thousand Slovak crowns each year. The state would pay half of the expenses and the second half would be covered by the employer. The vouchers would only work if the employee spent their holiday in Slovakia, the ministry said. However, some remain skeptical about the tourism voucher plan, saying local tourism would only benefit artificially as long as the programme was in place and it only creates room for corruption.

Ski season in Slovakia officially starts in December 15, but depending on weather conditions it can start a few weeks earlier or later, Grešo said. While guests cannot be sure about the weather they can be sure about the prices for ski passes, which will stay the same as last year's prices.

"(Cableway) operators understand that the issue of prices is very sensitive, and at the end of the day, it would be them who could pay for this (price hike) move," said Ján Gavalier, the chairman of Lavex.

Top ski resorts in Slovakia

Rated by the Sitour company and Lavex, the professional association of ski-lift and cableway operators

Four stars: Five stars:
Jasenská Dolina Chopok Sever
Relax Centre Plejsy Parksnow Donovaly
Roháče - Spálená Parksnow Štrbské Pleso
Ski Drienica Skipark Ružomberok
Ski Kubínska Hoľa Snowparadise Veľká Rača
Snowland Valčianska Dolina Vrátna Free Time Zone
Starý Smokovec  
Tatranská Lomnica  
Source: Trend weekly

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