Snowsports sector 2022 - economic, social, and cultural impact: research
This report presents the findings of research into the economic, cultural and social value of the Scottish snowsports sector.
7. Conclusions and recommendations
This chapter summarises the main findings and conclusions from the study in line with the research objectives and questions. It considers:
- The economic, cultural, and social value of the Scottish snowsports sector.
- The impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the snowsports sector.
- The long-term sustainability of the snowsports sector.
It does so by answering the questions:
- What do we already know about the economic, social, and cultural impact of the snowsports sector in Scotland?
- What is the economic contribution of the snowsports sector to the Scottish economy, both directly and indirectly?
- What broader social and cultural value does the snowsports sector and its supply chain contribute to Scotland as a nation?
- What impact has COVID-19 had on the snowsports sector and its supply chain in Scotland and what support is needed to aid its recovery?
- How sustainable is the future of the snowsports sector in Scotland? This should consider potential for diversification and resilience to climate change.
- What interventions - if any - may be required to strengthen the snowsports sector in Scotland?
When considering the main findings and conclusions of the research, it is important to bear in mind the challenges faced by the study team in accessing suitably detailed financial data from snowsports operators and in conducting the primary data collection work on-site. As a result, the quantitative findings should be considered indicative rather than definitive.
7.2 The current health of the snowsports sector
Scotland's snowsports sector comprises the five mountain centres and a network of 14 artificial slopes distributed more widely across Scotland. The sector is disparate with a diverse range of stakeholders with different roles, priorities, and interests. It remains fragmented and lacks strategic cohesion with no real shared vision or shared plans to ensure a successful, sustainable future.
While the global market for snowsports is expanding, Scotland is not sharing in this growth. Several factors are at play, including:
- Scotland has a very small share of a global market dominated by the European centres in the Alps (with growing competition from the US and emerging markets like China).
- The snowsports sector in Scotland is heavily dependent on the domestic market, in which growth potential will be more limited.
- The mountain centres are not of sufficient elevation to offer guaranteed snow cover. Changing weather patterns due to climate change are already leading to less snow and less consistent snowfall. Data shows that there has been a marked decline in snowsports visitor numbers due to these and other factors since the 1980s. The Scottish weather is the single most significant driver of demand.
- Good snow years can provide sufficient revenues to protect the mountain centres through more challenging years, but this remains a vulnerable plan.
Demand is therefore not likely to increase in Scotland to any great extent, and combined with factors such as limited international visitor appeal and fewer snow days, the Scottish snowsports sector may become increasingly vulnerable and unsustainable.
Demand is more consistent at the artificial slopes and was reported to have recovered well after the pandemic, even now exceeding pre-pandemic levels at some facilities. Many are also successful at engaging young people through clubs and partnerships with schools and third sector organisations.
However, more needs to be done to engage young people and those individuals, families and communities that are under-represented in snowsports, to broaden, diversity and strengthen the participation base going forward.
Due to limited financial data provided by snowsports operators, it has been difficult to accurately assess the financial position across the sector. However, while the current financial position appears reasonably stable, there are significant concerns for the future not least as wider economic conditions continue to be challenging.
Investment into the mountain centres has mainly come from the Enterprise Agencies, in particular from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), and from the operating companies themselves. However, more needs to be done, particularly in areas such as upgrading and replacing ageing infrastructure, better snow-making facilities that can ensure a consistent seasonal offer, further diversification of activities, improving toilet, catering and car parking infrastructure, and projects designed to improve environmental sustainability.
The artificial slopes also need continued investment to upgrade and replace ski slope surfaces and tow infrastructure. Additionally, some consideration should be given to addressing gaps in artificial slope provision in Fife, Perth and Kinross, Dundee, and Inverness. This could help to protect and grow the base of participation in areas where demand is higher.
Finally, the snowsports sector also reported significant challenges with the recruitment and retention of staff. Limited opportunities for year-round employment, a lack of affordable housing, high cost of coaching qualifications, EU Exit, and the cost of living crisis are all having an impact. Many of these challenges are not specific to the snowsports sector and may require wider collaboration with external partners to address them.
7.3 Economic impact
The Economic Impact Assessment (EIA) took account of both on-site impacts (i.e. those generated directly by snowsports operators) and off-site impacts generated by the expenditure by visitors to snowsports facilities (this includes only those visiting the five mountain centres). Table 7.1, below, summarises the total economic impacts in terms of Full-time Equivalent (FTE) jobs, wages and Gross Value Added (GVA).
|Off-site visitor spend||170||£3m||£5.2m|
This must be considered a relatively modest level of economic impact. For example, adventure tourism in Scotland is estimated to be worth £848 million, suggesting that snowsports accounts for only a small part of this market.
An economic impact of £20 million also represents a reduction of 68% in off-site impacts when compared to the 2016 assessment. The previous assessment did not consider on-site impacts but did include the off-site impacts of non-snowsports activities at the five mountain centres.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the scale of the off-site impacts depends on the number of visitors to the snowsports centres, and two main factors have combined to reduce visitor numbers in 2022:
- Poor weather conditions, including a lack of snowfall and high winds.
- The ongoing effects of the pandemic, impacting on participants' willingness to travel.
In fact, total snowsports visitor numbers to the five mountain centres were 66% lower in 2022 than in 2016. While 2022 (and indeed the two preceding seasons) cannot be considered representative due to the impact of the pandemic, the long-term trend is one of slight decline. The relatively low level of off-site impacts also reflects the heavy reliance on domestic visitors.
The sector does create employment, particularly in more remote, rural areas, and this is important, although the attraction and retention of staff is a consistent challenge.
Businesses local to the mountain centres have varying degrees of dependency on the snowsports sector and in particular the mountain centres. While good snow years mean additional income for local businesses in areas such as hospitality and in adjacent sectors such as outdoor and adventure tourism, the vagaries of the Scottish weather are such that these benefits are not reliable. As a result, many businesses have sought to reduce their dependency on snowsports as a source of business.
It is also worth noting that not all mountain centres are the same in terms of their links and significance to the wider business ecosystem. Cairngorms and the Nevis Range would both be viewed as part of a wider visitor offer/destination where visitors come to the area, may stay for several nights and take part in a range of activities, some of which may be snowsports.
The Lecht, Glenshee and Glencoe are more geographically isolated from wider communities and businesses and cater more to day visitors. This has less of an impact on surrounding businesses and communities.
7.4 Social and cultural impact
The social impacts of snowsports are typically framed in relation to social interaction, health and wellbeing and education, the first two of which were found to be important drivers of participation. However, the evidence base for the social impact of snowsports is less well developed than that of sport more generally.
It is also clear that participation in snowsports is dominated by higher socio-economic groups. This lack of socio-economic diversity amongst participants, and in particular the low representation of those from more deprived backgrounds, limits the overall health and social impact of the sector, not least given the connections between deprivation and health.
The research also found that participating in snowsports (as with other sports) is in itself a cultural experience, bringing together people with shared values around a common experience. Places that harness and promote this sense of community, and snowsports as more than a sporting experience, may reap the rewards – Aviemore is one example, but more obviously the alpine centres demonstrate the success of this approach.
7.5 Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19)
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously led to an immediate shutdown in business across the sector through the periods of lockdown and travel restrictions. The financial impact of this was substantially mitigated by government support but emerging from the worst of the pandemic into a year in which weather conditions were less favourable has constrained recovery. All providers forecast significant cost pressures ahead, including fuel costs, staff costs, repairs and maintenance. These will be felt across the sector and coupled with poor snow conditions in future, could create very challenging financial conditions.
7.6 Sustainability of the sector
The snowsports sector in Scotland is small and has always been subject to unpredictable snowfall, creating a degree of inherent vulnerability. The outlook for the sector is challenging due to:
- Partial financial recovery from the pandemic (although it has not been possible to assess in full the financial resilience of the sector).
- Cost of living pressures potentially reducing future demand as households and individuals' direct expenditure elsewhere.
- Increased costs for energy and essential supplies.
- Challenges with recruiting and retaining staff.
- Climate change, which will create greater uncertainty regarding the availability (and consistency) of snow.
These challenges suggest a need for action on several fronts, which will be explored in the following recommendations.
This section sets out a range of actions that could be considered to strengthen the snowsports sector, help it successfully adapt to the future, and make it more sustainable in the longer-term. A partnership and collaborative approach will be required between snowsports operators and key partners and agencies as appropriate. Among others, this is likely to include the Scottish Government, Enterprise Agencies, and Snowsport Scotland.
The research findings and actions to strengthen the sector, however, have to be placed within a wider context:
- The funding of public services is facing unprecedented pressure. This will result in a focus on funding core services and difficult decisions/choices in relation to investments that are not integral to these. This means the Scottish snowsports sector is unlikely to benefit from the level of public investment that it has received in recent years and will have to become increasingly self-sustaining.
- The cost of living crisis is putting significant pressure on the snowsports sector (e.g. increased operating costs, reduced demand). Existing and potential customers will also feel the brunt of the crisis, by having less disposable income and needing to prioritise spending.
- The effects of climate change are already having an impact of levels of participation in snowsports in Scotland, and this coupled with a heavy reliance on the domestic market is likely to undermine attempts to grow and widen participation in coming years.
The Scottish snowsports sector will therefore need to play a leading role in: embracing changes required by climate emergency, prioritising the actions to diversify the sector; harnessing a partnership and collaborative approach where appropriate; and continuing to explore ways to diversify income streams to become less reliant on public funding, and to ultimately become more self-sustaining.
- Invest in infrastructure which will make year-round access possible.
- Consider introducing new and varied activities during the year that require access to the mountains.
- Consider, where appropriate, the suitability of exploiting changes in snowsports trends, such as back country skiing.
- It should be kept in mind that the extent to which each mountain centre can successfully diversify and attract more visitors from outwith the domestic market will vary. Support is required to establish the feasibility of opportunities to diversify the activity offer at each of the mountain centres. It is important to ensure that diversification is viewed in the context of the wider visitor offer and not in isolation from local communities and partners.
Access and participation
- Encourage the next generation of snowsports participants through programmes of snowsports activities delivered in partnership with schools, Active Schools, Snowsport Scotland, and artificial slope and mountain centre operators, whilst recognising that snowsports is an expensive and seasonal activity and is never likely to be widespread.
- Encourage access to existing artificial slope provision in the North of Scotland, around Inverness, and the North East, around Dundee, to maximise accessibility. Snowsport Scotland and other partners should consider the feasibility of this action.
- Consider the options to improve and integrate public transport connections to each ski centre from main population areas where demand is highest. This could reduce the number of visitors by car as well as address a barrier to participation.
- Investigate through regional Destination Management Organisations, ways of better centre integration and promotion with the wider visitor economy.
- Broaden the appeal of the sport and work to make it more inclusive, particularly in relation to socio-economic diversity.
- Support the shift towards low carbon/ renewable energy sources.
- Replace existing uplift infrastructure, which must also be considered in the context of plans to diversify.
- Improve centres and existing infrastructure to help the sector to adapt to climate change, allowing more environmentally friendly and sustainable ways to operate, and ensure they match and exceed customer expectations.
- Where appropriate, lay artificial surfaces for some uplifts that currently require snow to function.
- Improve ancillary facilities, such as car parking, toilets and changing accommodation, and food and beverage offers. Investment in these also needs to be matched with plans to diversify facilities and activities to ensure sufficient capacity exists to accommodate future demand.
- Improve artificial slopes infrastructure to ensure that slope surfaces, tow infrastructure and ancillary facilities are maintained to a high standard. If the condition of assets is allowed to deteriorate, the quality of the offer and customer experience will be diminished, and will discourage participation.
- Consider, where appropriate, further investment to enhance snow-making on nursery/ learning slopes at the mountain centres to ensure a consistent winter offer. This must be considered in the context of the environmental impact and financial viability. There may also be opportunities to explore newer, innovative snow-creating alternatives which use significantly less energy. Enterprise Agencies have made strong investment to date in the sector, including for snow-making capability.
- Develop a shared vision for the future of the snowsports sector that has strong community involvement and buy-in.
- Strengthen existing partnerships and developing new partnerships to enhance future sustainability. This would include collaborative working with agencies external to the snowsports sector and could build on the role of the Scottish Government Strategic Group.
- Consider the benefits of appointing a strategic lead and advocate for the snowsports sector. This may facilitate improved co-ordination and help the sector to exploit opportunities for collaboration and reduce costs, such as joint procurement, sharing of common functions, and joint marketing. This could be delivered by an Enterprise Agency or through extending the remit of Snowsport Scotland.
- Explore opportunities for mountain centres to learn from each other, notwithstanding commercial sensitivities.
- Strengthen co-ordination between emergency services, local authorities and operators is required to ensure that the customer experience is enhanced and access to the road infrastructure is maintained when conditions are good.
- Explore further collaboration between schools (including those in deprived areas) and mountain centres to help off-peak season demand.
- Consider how stakeholders could develop a data and insight strategy that would provide a better understanding of the changes taking place within the sector and what impact this may have on future actions, performance, investment, demand. Data could be an important asset to the sector and the organisations that represent it.
- Consider how the sector can collectively support smaller, privately-owned, organisations with succession planning and longer-term sustainability. The reliance on a small number of individuals makes these businesses vulnerable. Thought also needs to be given to how they are supported to build resilience and capacity to ensure continuity in the longer-term.
- Consider collaborative approaches to on-site accommodation for staff.
- Explore opportunities to vary the cost, structure and availability of qualifications and training to ensure there are sufficient appropriately qualified staff.
- Explore opportunities to address year-round employment challenges with local businesses, which may be improved with diversification away from solely snowsports.
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