Downhill skiing remains an incredibly popular winter vacation choice, and Christmas and New Year are peak season for ski resorts, with some doing up to a third of their business during this short vacation. But there’s a problem. While there’s no shortage of people eager to ski over the festive period, there is often a shortage of snow. In 2016, the Swiss Alps experienced the driest December on record since 1864.
The solution for many resorts is to manufacture snow. A BBC report suggested 50 per cent of Swiss slopes and 70 per cent in Austria can now be snowed artificially – good news for skiers, but terrible for the environment. Making fake snow is a huge undertaking, requiring vast amounts of water, taken from and degrading local watercourses, or drawn from reservoirs built expressly for fake snow production, which damage the mountain landscape. In addition, the energy required to power these snow cannons is considerable. Swiss conservation group Pro Natura estimates that over a season it would be enough to fuel a small town.
The skiing industry’s focus on Christmas, when snowfall can be patchy, and on extending the season into Easter – which can occur as late as mid to late April – increases the demand for fake snow. Historically, skiing took place when mountain conditions permitted. The first skiers, over a century ago, would not have expected snow to be guaranteed from November to April. But with the growth in popularity of skiing, that’s changed.
Demand is not the only driver behind the manufacture of fake snow, of course; climate change is relevant, too. A 2016 study by the University of Neuchâtel and two Swiss research institutes showed that on average the snow season starts 12 days later and ends around 25 days earlier than in 1970. The patterns of climate change means that predictions for future snowfall are not reassuring.
The solution for most resorts is to make the snow, rather than wait for it. This means downhill skiing is increasingly neither a responsible nor an authentic vacation. Rather than being in a natural environment, the skier is essentially in a manmade one. Anyone visiting the Alps in December 2016, for example, would have seen unnatural looking mountain slopes, with ribbons of snow on the ski slopes threading down through green fields.


At Responsible Travel, our focus has always been on wilderness winter activities that – where possible – make the most of natural snow. These include ski touring, cross country skiing, dog sledding, snow shoeing and wildlife tracking, with virtually no downhill skiing. A huge number of our winter snow vacations take place in Scandinavia, whose northerly latitudes mean snowfall is more probable.
In order to keep the use of snow cannons to a minimum, we now only promote winter vacations that either take place in locations where no fake snow is produced, or run at a time of year when the likelihood of snow being manufactured is low. Real snow is as much about the calendar as the global climate. Some resorts and countries, mainly in Western Europe, have the ability to produce fake snow, but may not need to in the depths of January and February, when natural snowfall should occur. Taking a vacation during this time, when snow cannons are less likely to be employed, is the more responsible option.
By carefully screening the winter vacations sold through Responsible Travel, we aim to promote a more responsible approach to snow based vacations, while highlighting the problem of fake snow production. On each winter vacation on our site, based in resorts which have the ability to create artificial snow, we’ll include a No Snow box below the itinerary. This may suggest other fun activities available in the absence of real snow, as well as outlining the months when snowfall is most likely.
Fake snow or no, skiing almost always impacts the environment. Wildlife is disturbed and trees cut down to create slopes, while the installation of ski lifts, pylons and other infrastructure scars pristine mountain environments. Vacations that take place in parts of the world with natural snow – Scandinavia for instance – and cause minimal environmental impact, offer a responsible winter vacation alternative. This may involve activities such as dog sledding or snow shoeing rather than downhill skiing, for instance. These trips also offer the solitude and silence of a winter landscape rather than the noise and queues of popular ski slopes. This is why we believe that real snow, not fake snow, always provides a more authentic vacation experience, whether you’re skiing or not.
Photo credits: [Top box: Ruth Hartnup] [Late April snow: Richard Allaway] [Skiier on lift: Photo Monkey] [Dog sled Swedish Lapland: momo] [Snowshoeing in Finland: Guillaume Baviere]

Written by: Joanna Simmons
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