Lessons to be learnt from ski slopes
Unlikely as it may seem, real estate developers across the world would do well to look at how those involved in skiing have created resorts in recent years. Frightened by the prospect of global warming making the future of skiing uncertain, some developers in ski destinations in Europe and North America have been quick to adapt by making them year-round centres, not merely one season.
It's easy to see why the developers have had to act.
The Swiss Association of Winter Sports Resorts says the average Swiss ski season has shortened by 12 days since 1995 thanks to global warming. The French Snow Research Centre says a forecast 1.8 degree rise in temperatures would cut that country's annual snow cover above 1,500 metres from 170 days to just 135.
Some scientists paint a still bleaker picture. Work by the United Nations' environment programme suggests that rising temperatures are pushing the snowline up across Europe and that in Austria it will rise by a startling 300 metres in the next 50 years.
In Canada and the US – the latter unwilling to pay much attention to global warming under the Bush government, but likely to be far more responsive under Obama – the figures suggest similar long-term problems.
A report by the travel insurer Churchill has put places such as Morocco high on a list of likely ski destinations by 2050. The Moroccan ski resort of Oukaimeden, 3,250 metres above sea level, is revelling in its 'snow assured' status and has expanded by building 2,000 new hotel rooms and 25,000 square metres of retail space.
Who knows – the existing Dubai ski centre or the forthcoming Sunny Mountain snowdome may feature on a ski destination list sometime soon.
But it is the response of those specialist ski resort developers in Europe and North America that has been particularly impressive. Even though they previously built those strange gingerbread-design lodges only for skiers, they now know they have to diversify their buying market even in locations historically associated with snow.
"Year-round appeal is particularly important for holiday home and investor buyers. Projects that can deliver year-round rental occupancy offer greater protection for investors and are positive for the local economy," says Sean Collins of Pure International, a UK development firm. As a result of this realisation, and clever marketing by developers to explain the four-season potential even of a skiing area, this weak real estate sector is blossoming.
Holiday Rentals, a major UK-based lettings agency handling holiday homes rented out by owners across Europe and North America, says its most successful resorts are those which have year-round appeal. "Sixty per cent of our clients own one or two foreign homes. They almost always rent them out for the whole year. That will work where there are cultural or sporting attractions," says Holiday Rentals' spokeswoman Helen Chambers.
Realtors have followed suit, latching on to the new realities. "With global uncertainty in financial markets I'd advise potential buyers to concentrate on all-year resorts that have been popular for many years, that will remain popular due to their altitude, and that are popular with locals and not just Britons," says Gemma Knowles of the estate agency GK Italian Property.
Her experience is with ski resorts like Valtournenche, near Turin, where the highest ski lift soars 3,490 metres for good winter skiing but where summer sports include glacier skiing, an 18-hole golf course and an outdoor sports centre. There is also, of course, year-round access to the historic towns and cities that this part of Italy has to offer.
The property industry – builders, realtors and buyers, too – has been remarkably fleet-footed with this move.
A few years ago, global warming regarded as a problem worrying only scientists, and was often dismissed as eccentric. Now it is a reality for just about every country on earth and has threatened the small but high-profile niche skiing real estate sector. But the response by that sector has been so swift and successful, its worldwide sales rate has fallen less than in most other 'safer' sectors in the global credit crunch.
That same versatility and imagination needs to be applied to other realty sectors. This includes the luxury holiday home sector hitherto reliant on long-haul buyers and visitors who will reduce in number if flying becomes too expensive or anti-social. And what about those retail accommodation classes that were tailor-made for retailers before the explosion in internet shopping? These and other sectors need versatility to respond to what will be a new post-recessionary world with different demands. Look to the ski slopes for some inspiration.
Graham Norwood is a property correspondent for The Observer
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