The impacts of global climate change on ski tourism, which depends heavily on climate conditions, have increasingly gained concern overseas. This paper systematically summarized the relevant research ideas, the technical methods used, and the obtained achievements through an extensive synthesis of the previous studies. Moreover, the major shortcomings and the limitations in the recent studies are pointed in order to present a useful reference for our Chinese investigators. It indicates that the future climate warming would cause the loss of skiable areas, the shortening of skiing seasons and the sharp drop of ski visitors in many low altitude and low latitude ski resorts. The paper finally stressed that future research should pay particular attention to strengthening interdisciplinary cooperation and consider more factors about the impacts of climate-induced environmental changes on tourist flows. In the future ski resort planning and management, the possible impacts of global climate change should be taken into account.


climate change ; ski tourism ; impacts

1. Introduction

The challenge coming from climate change for tourism is nowadays an important issue for the tourism researchers. Winter ski tourism, which has been called “the canary in the coalmine” [ Bicknell and McManus, 2006 ], is highly sensitive to climate change. On 27 September, 2008, the theme of the World Tourism Day was named as “tourism responding to the challenge of climate change” by the World Tourism Organization, indicating that governments have paid more attention to the impacts of climate change on tourism.

In the future, global climate warming is a deadly threat to the ski areas in low latitude or low altitude. In recent years, the research regarding the impacts of climate change on ski tourism has increasingly gained concern overseas, while the relevant studies acquired little concern in China. Scott and McBoyle [2007] pointed out: “No climate change assessments of the ski industry in Spain, eastern Europe, South America, or China have been conducted, even though these regions have the greatest growth prospects in the next 20 years”. In order to present a useful reference for our Chinese investigators, this paper based on an extensive synthesis of the previous studies, systematically summarized the relevant research ideas, the technical methods used, the achievements obtained, the major shortcomings concerning the current studies, as well as some special remarks that should be paid attention to for further studies.

2. Research background

Even though the significance of climate as an environmental consideration in the choice of a destination was noted as early as in 1936 [ Gössling and Hall, 2006b ], it was not until the late 1980s that researchers began to study the relationship between global climate change and tourism [ Wall et al., 1986  and McBoyle and Wall, 1987 ]. The pioneering studies regarding climate change impacts on downhill skiing appeared in Canada, North America, such as the research undertaken in Quebec region by McBoyle and Wall [1987] . In the European Alps, some consecutive warm winters occurred in the end of the 1980s, and the number of tourists decreased sharply in many ski resorts due to insufficient snow, which made many owners panic. They wondered if under a global climate warming their ski resorts would face a threat of closure. Moreover, this had also attracted great attention of many scholars [ Abegg and Elsasser, 1996  and König and Abegg, 1997 ]. Thanks to the wide applications of computer technology, the quantitative study on tourism demand in the context of climate change began at the end of the 20th century. Since then a lot of statistics-based models have emerged[ Breiling and Charamza, 1999 , Fukushima et al., 2002  and Scott et al., 2001 ; 2008 ; Uhlmann et al., 2009 ], enabling the research content to be more detailed and the spatial coverage more extensive.

According to the statistics made by Scott et al. [2005] , of all the journals publications including the analysis of the impacts of climate change on tourism, 40% have appeared in climate-meteorological journals, 42% in a range of geography-environmental management planning focused journals, and only 18% in tourism-recreation journals. This reflects that the impact of climate change on tourism is a multidisciplinary and integrated subject, which requires multi-sectoral collaborative research. Meanwhile, this also suggests that climate change impacts on tourism have not yet received much attention in the field of tourism research.

3. Main research contents, methods and conclusions

According to the Fourth Assessment Report of IPCC, global average surface temperature had risen 0.74±0.18 °C during the period from 1906 to 2005. Global climate change prediction based on six emission scenarios indicates that global average surface temperature will rise 1.1–6.4 °C over the 21st century. The study shows that future climate warming is expected to be greater in the high latitude of Northern Hemisphere. It is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent. Increases in the amount of precipitation are very likely in high latitudes, while decreases are likely in most subtropical land regions [ IPCC, 2007 ].

So far, the research in relation to the impacts of climate change on ski tourism includes a very wide range of contents from which this paper presents only the most important aspects.

3.1. Impacts of climate change on snow-reliability

Skiing is the most important tourism activity in alpine winter. The current annual global skier visits were estimated at about 330 million, and direct revenues from global ski industry at nearly 9 billion U.S. dollars annually [ Scott and McBoyle, 2007 ]. Ski tourism depends on sufficient snow conditions and it is generally believed that secure skiing needs at least 30 cm of snow cover. Many researchers therefore take 30 cm of snow cover as the threshold for snow-reliability in ski resorts. From the perspective of economic viability for ski industry, Witmer [1986] put forward a definition of “the 100-day-rule”, which suggests that only ski areas with a sufficient snow covering at least 30 cm during at least 100 days per season between 1 December and 15 April would be able to operate a commercially viable ski industry. Several investigators have conducted a series of studies on snow reliability in ski resorts in the Swiss Alps [ Abegg and Elsasser, 1996 , König and Abegg, 1997 , Elsasser and Messerli, 2001  and Elsasser and Bürki, 2002 ]. Based on their in situ field survey, only ski resorts above 1,200 m above sea level have matched the 100-day-rule under current climate conditions in Switzerland, thus, 85% of the Swiss ski resorts (total 230) can be designated as snow-reliability today. If temperatures were to rise by 2 °C in the future (this may occur in the middle of the 21st century according to IPCC), the level of snow-reliability would rise from 1,200 m up to 1,500 m and the number of snow-reliability ski resorts would drop to 63%. Later they further proposed that the level of snow-reliability would rise up to 1,800 m over the next few decades, and then only 44% of the ski resorts in Switzerland would still be snow-reliability (Table 1 ).

Table 1. Relationship between snow-reliability and elevation in Swiss ski resorts [ Abegg and Elsasser, 1996  and Elsasser and Bürki, 2002 ]
Elevation (m) Number of ski resorts Proportion (%)
≤ 1,200 35 15
> 1,200 195 85
> 1,500 144 63
> 1,800 101 44
Total 230 100

3.2. Impacts of climate change on the length of skiing season

Some researchers have tried to predict the impacts of future climate change on the length of skiing season by building models based on historical climate data collected from local weather stations. For example, several researchers led by Daniel Scott from the University of Waterloo in Canada have carried out studies of climate change vulnerability for 5 ski areas in the Lakelands Tourism Region of south-central Ontario, Canada, and for 103 individual ski resorts from 14 areas in the Northeast United States [ Scott et al., 2001  ; 2008 ]. By using historical maximum, minimum and daily mean temperature, precipitation and snow depth data compiled from local weather stations, a LARS stochastic weather generator was applied to simulate new time series. Thanks to the Skiing Season Simulation Model, the impacts of climate change on the length of skiing season for different time frames were predicted. Similar investigations were conducted by Moen and Fredman [2007] for the Sälen ski resort in Sweden, and by Heo and Lee [2008] for the Yongpyong ski resort in South Korea. The results showed that with future climate warming, the skiing season in many ski resorts will decrease to a certain extent (Table 2 ).

Table 2. Impacts of climate change on the skiing season length
Regions Present skiing season length (day) Modeled change in skiing season length (%) Researchers
2010–2039 2040–2069 2070–2099
Lakelands Region, Ontario 118–126 −3 to −30 −10 to −52 −22 to −66 Scott et al. , 2001
Northeast United States 100–172 −6 to −3 −8 to −38 −8 to −59 Scott et al. , 2008
Sälen, Sweden 162 −40 to −59 Moen and Fredman , 2007
Yongpyong, South Korea 120 −12 −30 −49 Heo and Lee , 2008

3.3. Impacts of climate change on the skier numbers and economic benefits

By using data such as daily averaged air temperature, precipitation, wind velocity and the sunshine duration observed at the local meteorological stations, Fukushima et al. [2002] modeled the relationship between climate change and the number of skiers based on the budgets for water and heat. They estimated a more than 30% drop in visiting skiers in almost all ski areas in Japan except in the northern region (Hokkaido) and/or in high altitude regions (center of the Main Island) under the condition of a 3 °C increase in air temperature. Skier numbers at ski areas with low altitude in southern Japan were expected to fall by more than 50%.

Under the assumption that no redistribution of skiing or expenditure patterns occur, Moen and Fredman [2007] estimated the loss in total expenditures in the Sälen ski resort in Sweden to be in the range of 946.5 million to 1,755.3 million SEK annually (relative to 2006 prices) caused by the reduction in skiable days resulting from future climate change for the period 2070–2099.

3.4. Perception of climate change by ski tourism stakeholders

So far the study on the perception of climate change from ski tourism stakeholders, encompassing four major groups such as government policy makers, ski managers, ski tourists and local residents, is still quite weak.

It has been noted that Swiss ski operators have tended to discount the threat posed by climate change. They think that climate change is presented in a highly exaggerated form by the media, and also by sciences and politics. Although they strongly distrust the information disseminated about climate change and play down its potential consequences, they use the potential of climate change to legitimate forward strategies, including constructing artificial snowmaking facilities and opening new ski runs in high-alpine regions [ Behringer et al., 2000  and Elsasser and Bürki, 2002 ].

Rolf Bürki from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, conducted a questionnaire with 1,000 skiers and snowboarders in five ski resorts in central Switzerland. The results show that 83% of the respondents believe that climate change could threaten the ski tourism [ Bürki, 2000 ]. Vrtacnik Garbas Katja [2007] from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, carried out a questionnaire in four winter sport centers in Slovenia in the winter 2004–2005, by asking the question “Do you think that global warming resulting from the increased green house effect could threaten skiing/snow-boarding in Slovenia?”. Among the 843 questioned skiers, 577 have given affirmative answer.

In 1998, a standardized written survey was conducted with farmers in four alpine regions of central Switzerland [ Behringer et al., 2000 ]. 295 questionnaires were personally distributed and collected which explain a response rate of 45.5%. In addition, five face-to-face semi-structured interviews were also conducted with agricultural experts. It was found that climate change is considered as an important issue by the majority of the farmers. The farmers were well acquainted with the signs of climate change; among those less severe winters and a reduction in the snow cover are by far the most important ones. The increasing frequency of extreme events such as avalanches, land slides and floods was also noticed.

3.5. Adaptation options of ski industry

At present, studies on adaptation measures for ski tourism are relatively mature [ Abegg and Elsasser, 1996 , König and Abegg, 1997 , Elsasser and Messerli, 2001 , Elsasser and Bürki, 2002  and Scott and McBoyle, 2007 ]. Figure 1 summarizes the key adaptation measures.

Climate adaptation options in the ski industry (slightly modified after Scott ...

Figure 1.

Climate adaptation options in the ski industry (slightly modified after Scott and McBoyle’ s [2007] version)

With regard to the ski area operators, artificial snowmaking and extending ski runs to higher altitudes are considered to be the most important adaptation answers to climate change.

Snowmaking technology was first implemented in 1952 at the Grossinger Resort at Fahnestock, New York [ Scott and McBoyle, 2007 ]. Artificial snowmaking has become an important integral component of the ski industry in many regions at present as it can effectively extend the skiing season. In their analysis of six ski areas in eastern North America, Scott et al. [2006] demonstrated that snowmaking had extended the average skiing season between 55 days and 120 days during the period 1961–1990 and predicted to extend the skiing season to 71–129 days for the period 2010–2039. However, the artificial snowmaking is not a “cure-all-strategy”. In his study carried out in Tyrol, Austria, Steiger [2007] indicated that although snowmaking can provide desired season lengths today, it can not solve the problem of shortening skiing seasons at lower elevations in the future even with an intensification of snowmaking. In addition, the artificial snowmaking has many restrictive conditions. It requires at first sub-zero temperatures, and needs a lot of fresh water and greater energy inputs, causes noise, results in ground frozen that may deter vegetation growth in coming spring, etc. [ Meurer, 1988  and Tuppen, 2000 ]. Therefore, artificial snowmaking is severely controlled in some countries.

The expansion of new ski areas into higher elevations, where snow cover is generally more reliable and a longer skiing season is possible, appears to be another principal climate change adaptation strategy. Thirty-six ski areas in Austria applied for permits to expand their operations into higher elevations in 2002–2003. But the high elevation mountain environments are particularly sensitive to disturbance. The development of new ski resorts in higher altitude often faces tremendous pressure from the environmental and public groups. For example, a project to develop a world-class, four-season ski resort on Jumbo Glacier in southern British Columbia has been held up since 1991 by a strong opposition from environmental groups and local residents.

With respect to ski tourists, climate change adaptations are more flexible, including the change of timing for their skiing trip and the destination, or substituting skiing for another recreation activity. König [1998] carried out a survey in three ski centers in Australia in winter 1996. In particular, skiers were asked: “Where and how often would you ski, if you knew the next five winters would have very little natural snow?”, only 25% of the questioned skiers indicated that they would continue to ski with the same frequency in Australia. 31% would still ski in Australia but less frequently. 38% of respondents thought that instead of in Australia, they would ski/snowboard elsewhere (mainly to New Zealand and Canada), and a further 6% answered that they would no longer practice skiing at all. A similar survey was conducted with skiers at five ski areas in the central European Alps and has achieved analogous conclusions [ Bürki , 2000 ].

4. Limitations of the current studies

The impacts of climate change on tourism, which contain more predicting compositions and are therefore extremely difficult, are in the scope of global change research. As Scott et al. [2005] assessed, “Our understanding of the potentially profound consequences of global climate change for the tourism sector remains equally limited and research in this field is still in its infancy”. It indicates that there are mainly the following limitations included in the current researches.

4.1. Unbalance in research regions and contents

Most previous researches in relation to global climate change impacts on ski tourism have been undertaken mainly in major developed countries, for example, western Europe and North America, while relevant researches in developing countries have lagged far behind. With regards to research content, the impacts of climate change on ski tourism and adaptation strategies have led to relatively mature studies, but studies about mitigation measures are still rarely seen. Furthermore, the researches on the perceptions and attitudes of the tourism stakeholders are obviously insufficient.

4.2. Obvious weaknesses existing in some quantitative models

Due to insufficient tourism statistical database [ Gössling and Hall, 2006a , Gössling and Hall, 2006b  and Bigano et al., 2006 ] and inadequate consideration of the climate parameters, some models for forecasting the tourist flows have evident defects. Most current simulation models usually contain only two major weather parameters such as temperature and precipitation. Some even consider only the single variable of the temperature. The role of other weather parameters, such as humidity, sunshine, wind, etc. has been largely neglected. Predicting tourist flows based on such generalized database is thus likely to have substantial deviations.

4.3. Scant consideration about the possible changes of main affecting factors

Tourism depends heavily on travel transport. Currently, oil prices are steadily increasing, transport costs will also continue to rise. Moreover, the consumer’s disposable income and leisure time are likely to change in the future. The possible changes of these key factors are generally not taken into account in current studies, which might lead to substantial errors.

4.4. The uncertainty of climate change predictions

Current models for predicting climate change consist of a number of component modules, each with its own inbuilt assumptions. Therefore the prediction itself contains many uncertainties. Larger errors occur especially for the predictions of the latter part of this century.

4.5. Poor comparability of the results induced by inconsistent research indicators

Many researchers use inconsistent research indicators. For example, criteria of snow reliability, critical snowmaking temperature, etc. used by various researchers are different. The comprehensive conclusions are thus difficult to obtain through horizontal comparison.

5. Major issues in the future research

Considering that the current studies with regard to climate change impacts on tourism might contain aforementioned weaknesses, future research should therefore pay special attention to the following aspects:

(1) The study of climate change impacts on ski tourism which is a multidisciplinary sensitive topic, needs not only professional knowledge of the subject “tourism”, but also the participation of experts from the field of climate and environmental changes. An interdisciplinary cooperation is therefore very important. Future research to further improve the accuracy also depends on the cooperation of interdisciplinary researchers.

(2) As the factors taken into account in the current studies on climate change impacts on tourism are too monotonous, future studies should consider more relevant variables, and particular attention should be paid to the impacts of climate-induced environmental changes on tourist flows. Tourists would be sufficiently flexible to adjust to climate variability; the study on the perceptions and attitudes from the visitors should be substantiated in the future.

(3) The possible global climate change impacts should be incorporated into future ski resort planning and management. For example, the selection of ski field sites needs to ascertain the potential impacts of future global warming on the snow reliability. Ski resort managers must pay attention to information about weather forecast and make reasonable control over the timing of seasonal openings.

Since the tourism industry has become the world’s largest economic sector, which not only releases greenhouse gases like other industries, but also is very sensitive to climate change, it is very significant to strengthen the research on the impacts of climate change on tourism. In view of the lag situation in relevant research in China, the government should give more support for the studies in the future, and the tourism investigators should give more concern about the subject and be engaged in the research as an obligation.


The authors are grateful to the foundation for the Project of Key Subject of Human Geography of Fujian Normal University for the partial financial support of this research.


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