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Lack of snow forces rethink at German ski resorts

January 13, 2023

Unusually mild temperatures have left many German ski slopes snowless, hurting the tourist trade. Ski regions might need to reinvent what they have to offer tourists.

A ski slope barely covered with snow at the Fichtelberg in the Ore Mountains
Snow-free slopes are deserted on the Fichtelberg, eastern Germany's tallest mountainImage: Sebastian Willnow/dpa/picture alliance

"It isn't uncommon for things to get going in late January," said Rene Lötzsch, who owns the Fichtelberg cable car service in eastern Saxony. He's trying to remain optimistic.

Ordinarily, at this time of year, the lift would be shuttling scores of winters sports enthusiasts up to the top of Fichtelberg, eastern Germany's tallest mountain. But due to this year's mild temperatures the snow-free slopes are deserted. That said, Lötzsch still hopes "things will pick up eventually."

Skiing is out of the question

For weeks, temperatures in this part of Germany have been unusually balmy. The little snow that did fall has melted away. "It was extreme," said Lötzsch. "We kicked off the season on December 16 when it was minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit), but on Christmas Eve, it was plus 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit)," he told DW. This was accompanied by heavy rainfall, making skiing and snowboarding impossible.

A group of hikers in Saxony, Germany.
In addition to skiing, eastern Saxony offers great hiking trails for winter walksImage: Daisy Richter

"I don't remember ever experiencing such a situation," said Cindy Beck, a regional director at the nearby Ahorn hotel. On December 18, when temperatures were frigid and snow was plenty, local hotels were busy. Then, on New Year's Day, temperatures climbed to an unusually warm 15 degrees Celsius. That's why the ski region has been uncharacteristically empty in recent weeks.

Local tourism chief Daisy Richter is concerned, saying "the impact on the tourist trade has been severe." Many hotels near Fichtelberg mountain are now faced with low occupancy rates.

Most winter sports resorts lack snow

Other ski resorts across Germany are dealing with similar problemsthis season. Germany's mountainous Black Forest region has also experienced unusually warm temperatures. A cable car service on the Feldberg mountain was briefly suspended due to lack of snow, though recently, new snowfall was recorded. 

The situation is similarly difficult in northern Germany's Harz highland area. Here, ski slopes have been forced to close. Only Germany's Alpine ski resorts have been largely unaffected by this year's temperature spike.

An excavator clears snow into a mound.
After days of usually warm temperatures, Feldberg mountain in the Black Forest region has finally recorded new snowfallImage: Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's lower-lying mountain ranges will most likely be confronted with such problems more often. The country's Environment Ministry has projected that future winters will be even shorter and less frosty, with the snow line, the level above which snow lies all year, rising. As our planet continues to heat up, ski resorts will be forced to adapt, said the ministry. This means they will also need to focus more on alternative, sustainable forms of tourism like hiking.

Summer toboggan run reactivated

Locals in the Rothaar Mountains, in North Rhine-Westphalia, are already coming to grips with this reality. "We realize we cannot focus on winter sports alone," said Norbert Lopatta, who manages tourism and cultural affairs in the municipality of Willingen near the 838-meter (2,749-foot) high Ettelsberg mountain. Lopatta was clear that "we need to focus more on the summer season." Currently, winter sports are also out of the question in this region. Instead, the summer toboggan run has been reactivated.

The municipality of 6,000 inhabitants usually records 1 million overnight stays per year. Some 4 million day-trippers visit the region as well, said Lopatta — yet they tend to stay away when there's no snow around.

Jörg Wilke, who manages the Ettelsberg cable car, said the mild weather of recent weeks is part of natural fluctuations he has been observing every year. "This is not a new phenomenon for us," he said. "I have been doing this job for 23 years and every year is different."

That said, he admits that "of course we are also feeling the impact of climate change, it is getting warmer." Forced to adapt, the local municipality has set up an area where mountain bikers can speed down the mountainside. "If there are no more real winters in 15 years' time, we will spend more time cycling," he added pragmatically.

Time for tourism industry to diversify

In Oberwiesenthal, a resort town near the Fichtelberg mountain, many are realizing that changes are needed. "We will face more snow-free periods during winter," said Daisy Richter. "That is why we need to rethink our business."

Previously, Oberwiesenthal had been synonymous with winters sports. In fact, two Olympic athletes hail from the area. "Everyone here has been pretty fixated on snow," said Richter. Rarely did anyone ever consider diversifying the town's offerings. But a hard rethink may now be in order. "We want to attract visitors all year round," she said, envisioning the promotion of other forms of tourism that will also appeal to those "who are happy without snow."

Rene Lötzsch standing on a ski slope, looking into the camera
Cable car operator Rene Lötzsch remains cautiously optimistic about the futureImage: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa/picture alliance

Cable car operator Rene Lötzsch knows he, too, needs to adapt to the changing times. "You need to get creative and think about how to attract visitors when there is no snow," he said. Even so, he still thinks Germany's so-called Ore Mountains, along the German-Czech border, will remain an appealing ski region. Studies suggest winter sports will still be possible there in the next 50 years.

Despite these difficult times, Lötzsch has an remained positive. He has invested several million euros into the construction of a new cable car system, and also plans to further expand local snowmaking capacities.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jonas Martiny -  Travel Online-Autor
Jonas Martiny Reporter, correspondent