Slippery slope ahead for ski resorts in Central and Eastern Europe

Posted on January, 13 2009

New research suggests that ambitious plans for dozens of new ski resorts in Central and Eastern Europe could be constructed on slippery financial slopes.
New research suggests that ambitious plans for dozens of new ski resorts in Central and Eastern Europe could be constructed on slippery financial slopes.

The potential financial uncertainty on the future viability of the resorts is also adding to concerns that some of Europe’s last wilderness areas will be damaged to little purpose.

Up to two-thirds of Alpine ski areas could go out of business due to a lack of snow on current climate change projections, which see temperature rises of between 2 and 5.2 degrees Celsius in coming decades, research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has suggested.

The WWF report suggests that a similar fate may be in store for proposed and ongoing developments in Central and Eastern Europe, and that the cost of these white elephants will be greater than just financial.

In Romania alone, 102 resorts or developments have been planned, and a project in Ukraine is looking to develop into one of Europe’s largest ski resorts, with 100,000 beds and 66 lifts at a total cost of some €3 billion.

“Construction of ski facilities removes large areas of forest to make way for ski pistes, access roads and infrastructure, reducing and fragmenting habitat for wildlife,” said Andreas Beckman, Deputy Director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian programme.

“It is irresponsible for governments to not only allow but actively support such damage when there is very likely no economic future for these resorts.” Many of the ski development projects rely on very significant funding from state and EU sources.

“If the real reason is a very short term bonanza of chalet speculation then it will be an economic, environmental and social tragedy,” Beckmann concluded.

Most proposed ski resort projects for Central and Eastern Europe are located at below 1500 meters above sea level, a threshold considered in the Alps to be the lowest point at which a ski resort can be currently considered viable in terms of snowfall for skiing.

The Carpathian Mountains where many of the ski areas are planned is home to over half of Europe’s largest remaining populations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes. Ancient beech forests stretching from Slovakia to Ukraine are among Europe’s last remaining natural forests and were recently listed as a World Heritage Site.

Some ski developments are illegal as well as unwise; a number of Bulgarian projects are being built in protected areas including Rila and Pirin National Parks. Governments are not necessarily at the forefront of enforing their own laws, either. Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev opened an illegally constructed ski lift in September.

In Romania, a state programme plans for construction of ski areas in eight of the country’s national parks, including Retezat and Piatra Craiului, the country’s flagship protected areas.

A common problem with ski developments throughout the region are the poor quality of many environmental impacts assessments, many of which do not meet EU standards.

Ski resorts with only short term prospects of natural snow also raise significant cost and environmental concerns if they try to keep themselves going with artificial snow, the report found.

The 3,100 snow cannons around Europe, designed to maintain the quality of ski slopes, consume some 260,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) worth of electricity annually. This is an amount that could power a city of 150,000 people for a year.

“The least responsible thing that public authorities can do is to ensure that the economic aspects of ski resort development justify the environmental damage,” Beckmann said.

“Much better would be working out how countries and communities can get long term value from their environmental assets without destroying them.”

Click here to access the WWF study "White Elephants in the Green Mountains: Ski develompents in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine" (1.76 MB).

Andreas Beckmann, Deputy Director, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme, Mobile: +43 676 84 27 28 216 
Autumn in the Romanian Carpathians/George Dinicu, WWF DCP
Heavy machines used to construct illegal ski runs in Vitosha Nature Park, Bulgaria
Heavy machines used to construct illegal ski runs in Vitosha Nature Park, Bulgaria
© WWF/Konstantin Ivanov
bulldozers in Rila
Bulldozers in Rila National Park, Bulgaria, constructing an illegal ski lift
Newly constructed ski lift in the Tatras National Park in Slovakia.
© Juraj Vysoky
people protest in the night
Activists protest against illegal construction of ski resorts in Rila National Park under the windows of Bulgarian president Georgi Parvanov