At a time when question marks have been raised again over the future viability of Scottish skiing, CairnGorm Mountain above the famous resort town of Aviemore, remains upbeat and confident of its future as a winter sports area. However, the management says that it recognises the major issues brought on by providing such weather-dependent facilities on a large scale, particularly during a period of major global climatic change.
Unlike at Glenshee and Glencoe, where both skiing areas were put up for sale last month, CairnGorm Mountain has been able to diversify its activities and attractions and, largely because of the funicular railway and its associated visitor facilities, has been transformed into a year-round visitor destination. A recent survey carried out on behalf of the Cairngorms National Park confirmed this successful transition with Cairngorm Mountain identified as being twice as popular as any other pay-to-enter visitor attraction in the surrounding area and having already achieved what industry observers perceive as "icon status" in the resurgence of tourism locally.
Said Bob Kinnaird, CairnGorm Mountain's Chief Executive: "It is now self-evident that providing skiing facilities in Scotland is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain and that any skiing area that has not been able to diversify will always have serious problems."
"The substantial investment by public body Highlands and Islands Enterprise in developing the funicular project has enabled us to diversify and seek to attract new markets. Since we opened two years ago, well over 350,000 non-skiing visitors have come to CairnGorm Mountain and that is a very substantial change to our visitor profile. It is worth bearing in mind that, if each of these non-skier visitors were only to have spent £10 while in the area by way of secondary spend on other attractions and services, such a shops, hotels and garages, that represents an additional £3.5million boost to the local economy over the past two years."
"We believe that this is how the real success of the funicular should be measured - as being a major catalyst in growing the local tourism economy - and it is on that basis, as well as on the announcement by HIE that unemployment locally has dropped from 7% to 3%, that we remain confident about its long-term viability and that of tourism locally."
"Diversifying both our product and our market has allowed us to re-position ourselves as one of Scotland's leading visitor attractions and, quite simply, that would not have been possible without the investment in the funicular railway."
Turning to the current difficulties relating to the provision of skiing on a large scale in different parts of the country, Mr Kinnaird reinforced CairnGorm Mountain's commitment to remaining as Scotland's leading winter sports area but cited several factors as having been instrumental in creating the present fall in numbers. Changing life-style patterns, the ready availability of low cost airline travel, and demographic changes in the numbers of young people in Scotland, as well as the uncertainty surrounding future climatic conditions, have all contributed to the marked decline in those now heading regularly for the Scottish slopes.
"Our skier numbers now are about a quarter of what they once were in the early 90's" explained Bob Kinnaird, "But the graph of the declining numbers is not a straight line and it is the unpredictability of it all - due to these uncertainties - that causes the real damage by making business planning very difficult. At present, the increased business generated by summer visitor numbers is not enough to subsidise the losses created by recent poor winters and it is possible that the level of snow sports facilities on offer might have to be revised from time to time because of factors largely outwith the industry's control."
"At the end of the day, the future of skiing will be down to climate but we remain committed to creating opportunities for people to enjoy winter sports here. However, putting it very simply "No Snow equals No Skiing" - and that is the kernel of the problem facing all of us. We are currently working on various models to reduce the business risk arising from poor winters and, in these changing times, we all have to be very flexible in both attitude and outlook. Each challenge has to be viewed as an opportunity to diversify."