North America is about two and a half times the size of Europe, and yet Europe has about four times as many ski areas as North America.
So it should be no surprise that many of Europe’s ski areas sit right next door to each other with the greater population density, and that every year Europe’s ski areas decide to link operations with one another, offering bigger and bigger ski areas on one ticket by amalgamating terrain.
The 2013-2014 seasons is no different. In fact, this season is unusual in that there are five pairs of resorts joining together and growing – including several world famous choices like the Austrian Arlberg (home of St. Anton) and the Swiss 4 Vallees (home of Verbier).
They’re joining regions like Ski Jewel, created in Austria last season when the resorts of Alpbachtal and Wildschonau got together to develop an area with 90 miles of ski runs between them (yes, in Europe we go by trail length not terrain area, mostly), served by 47 lifts.
The management of the two lift companies said that in an ever more competitive market, they had to get together to stay in business, while promising to keep lift ticket prices affordable.
That’s the rub you see – these connections typically involve tens of millions of Euros for new lifts and new runs, so it’s quite a big investment that needs to be recouped, hopefully with a bigger return than the total for the two separate areas added together would have been.
There are also the years, and sometimes decades of planning that happen to bring these connections to life. In Switzerland for example, each community has a public vote on whether or not they like the idea of the link up. There are also the environmental assessments and sometimes permissions required from landowners between the neighbouring ski areas.
So what are the big link-ups currently happening in the Alps?
The biggest news is that the Arlberg region in Austria (which integrates the skiing of St. Anton and Lech) is getting bigger still. It’s increasing from 175 to 215 miles of piste with the help of a new gondola connection to neighbouring ski villages Warth and Schrocken. They’re throwing a big party to celebrate the opening of the long-planned link.
In Switzerland, another interesting connection will be made between the classic high altitude village of Arosa and neighbouring Lenzerheide. There are mixed feelings here as Arosa’s 35 miles of runs were seen as part of an intimate, exclusive resort, but the combined area extending to 130 miles has a wider attraction and more people in Arosa voted for the link that they did in Lenzerheide, so clearly a connection was needed.
Also in Switzerland this month, a new gondola from Le Châble to Les Mayens de Bruson will complete a 14 month project to link the quiet Bruson area to the 250 miles of the 4 Vallees, Switzerland’s largest ski area and home to Verbier. Known as a haven in bad weather and for its 25 miles or so of empty slopes, Bruson used to take 45 minutes to get to, but now it’s about a tenth of that.
Finally, the new G-Link, a lift similar to the Peak2Peak at Whistler Blackcomb, is connecting two mountains on each side of the Austrian resort Wagrain. Because these two mountains are connected to neighbouring villages, it’ll create a string of four linked ski areas with about 75 miles of pretty, tree-lined runs between them. It’s worth watching the video produced by the lift companies, which helpfully explains the connection with the use of puppets (genius).
All of these connections are hoping to emulate the success of Paradiski, which has been around for almost exactly a decade. The French ‘super area’ is linked by a spectacular €50m double decker cable car (“tram”) that has carried millions of people about a thousand feet above the valley floor between the big resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne. This tram essentially created a combined ski area with 270 miles of runs, more than 6,500 feet of vertical, approximately 200 lifts and 34,000 skiable acres. To celebrate they’ve been offering 10% off lift passes for early bookers and contracted a leading artiste to decorate the famous cabins.