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Snowless Winter Puts Ski Resorts Around Europe to the Test : Industry Seeks Ways to Keep Tourists Coming for Season

January 14, 1988|Associated Press

SESTRIERE, Italy — Struck by another snowless winter, European ski resorts are fighting back with snow cannons, higher cable cars and gimmicks to keep idle skiers entertained.

In Sestriere and other Alpine resorts, the last major snowfall was Nov. 29. Switzerland, Austria and West Germany report one of the mildest winters in a quarter-century.

"I don't remember a worse winter since 1964, when we had the Innsbruck Olympics," said Italy's Erich Demetz, president of the World Cup Ski Organization.

Lack of snow forced Swiss organizers to drop classic men's World Cup ski races next week in Wengen, and Adelboden on Tuesday canceled its program for the first time in the World Cup's 22-year history. The cancellations delayed preparation for the winter Olympics in Calgary.

Hotels, especially in Germany and Italy, are even emptier than usual during the January low season. Hundreds of ski lifts below 4,000 feet across the Alps are shut down.

"Daisies--that's all you see around the Alps," said Renato Opezzi, director-general of Sestriere, Italy's oldest resort, founded in 1931. "If we hadn't invested in 450 snow cannons a few years ago, we would never have attracted anyone."

Sestriere, run by the Fiat auto company, has poured more than $30 million in the past three years into computerized snow-making equipment, new lifts and alternative tourist attractions such as an ice-covered race track for cars and motorcycles. It is one of the largest winter complexes outside the United States.

As a result, it has drawn more than 250,000 skiers since November, an increase of 45% over 1986, although Sestriere's ski pass is Italy's most expensive at $30.

Other European resorts have not been so fortunate.

Down the valley, rival Bardonecchia has only two out of 40 lifts working. On the French border, at the foot of Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, only four out of 43 miles of trails are open at Courmayeur.

Megeve, in France, is offering golf, tennis and swimming. It is too warm to operate snow machines. At Garmisch Partenkirchen in West Germany, only two of five peaks--Osterfelder and Zugspitze--can be skied.

In Switzerland, most resorts with lifts under 4,000 feet have had a bad season so far, although there was light snow during the past week.

The scant snow has been a boon to snow-making machine manufacturers and cable-car builders.

In Italy, the Leitner company of Vitipeno said it has sold out all its snow-making equipment.

Leitner has just completed a $7-million, six-seat gondola lift to move 2,250 people an hour above the 8,200-foot line in Sestriere. In the Dolomites, at Plan Corones, Leitner has built what is billed as the world's most powerful ski lift--a 3,000-horsepower gondola lift that is more than two miles long and reaches nearly 10,000 feet.

The Pomagalski company, a competitor based in Grenoble, France, is producing gondolas that seat 12 skiers and move 3,600 passengers an hour at 14 m.p.h.

Ski resorts without a battery of snow cannons or high-altitude cable cars have had to lure tourists in other ways.

Swiss resorts offer golf, tennis, bird-watching and special packages for children. Megeve in France rents out a homemade "grassmobile" that churns over grass, dirt and rocks for tourists who still want to enjoy the open air.

Organizers of World Cup downhill and slalom events in Bad Kleinkirchheim in southern Austria this weekend have planned a fashion parade, mass musical entertainment and two beauty pageants.

Brenner Pass resorts in Italy hired buses to carry hundreds of Austrian and German weekend skiers across to snowier Italian slopes in the Dolomites.

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