Updated: Apr 28
Anyone can do sports. Regardless of socio-economic background, there is some form of physical activity available to every individual. Whether it be running, football, rugby, tennis or other, there is something for everyone. While some activities are considered more accessible to different socio-economic groups than others, no one sport receives quite as much criticism for being a status symbol or embodiment of class achievement as snow sports. More specifically, skiing is categorised, more often than not, as ‘Tory’, ‘Posh’, ‘Upper Class’ or by other labels not fit for Juncture’s public website.
But it was not always like that. Skiing was once the common sport of mountainous communities, no more impressive than cycling. It was more accessible to those in rural areas, making it more popular in poorer, rural Europe than in urban areas. Buying skis could be as easy as heading to a local second-hand shop to buy a pair of tired and well-used skis which are more comparable to two planks of wood by today’s standards. Even further back, skiing is revealed as less of a leisure activity and more of a practical transportation method, used for navigating terrain during winter when rural communities faced three metres of snow blanketing their villages.
There is a clear disparity between how skiing was once viewed and how skiing is now viewed. So, what happened? How did mass popularisation also cause mass polarisation? Is there any legitimacy to the claim that skiing is an ‘upper class sport’? Is there anything that can be done to break the stigmatism, or will skiing remain to be perceived as a trophy of the rich and an ambition of the poor?
Popularisation = Polarisation
While the first skis can be traced back to ancient China, approximately 8000 BC, the origins of today’s recognition of skiing as a hobby and practical transportation method are more commonly associated with the Norwegian army of the 1700s (Allerfeldt, n.d., p. 1). Within the century of its inception, Norway’s uptake marked skiing’s transition from a necessity to a recreational activity which encouraged its continental spread and popularity increase.
France hosted the first Winter Olympics in the Chamonix resort – home to Mont Blanc – and popularity spread rapidly across Switzerland, Italy, the Germanic, Balkan and Baltic states as well as Russia and even the UK with Scotland opening its own resort. Uptake spread trans-continentally with the US opening resorts (which remain some of the most expensive today), as well as Canada, Japan and China. Today, there is a ski resort in every inhabited continent on the planet.
Consequently, where there is demand, there must be supply. Winter sports became a lucrative business, particularly following the travel and tourism boom after the end of the Second World War. If people want to ski, someone needs to own the slopes. There needs to be chair lifts to get people to the top of the mountains. There needs to be machinery to ensure health and safety standards are met before people are allowed to send themselves down the face of a mountain anywhere between 30-80 miles per hour. Many foreign skiers do not own their own equipment, so it needs to be hired once they are at the resort.
They also need to eat three meals a day, on and off the mountain. Foreigners often fly to the nearest airport and then take a coach or taxi transfer to the resort which normally sits about 1800 metres above sea level. In a neoliberal world, there is money to be made. How much money? A standard ski holiday for seven days to a European resort including lift passes, accommodation, equipment hire, flights and transfers can be expected to come in around £1000 per person.
The Alps, which straddle the French, Monegasque, Swiss, Italian, Liechtensteiner, Austrian, German and Slovenian borders, have been dubbed the “playground of Europe” by many, but the rise in prices to access them have provoked a revision of the term. Many argue that the “playground of the wealthy” is a more fitting description of the mountain range. The Alps are home to 1161 ski resorts (Skiresort.info, n.d., p. 1), making up almost a third of all the ski resorts in Europe. There are few homogenous figures regarding Alpine sport revenue but one thing all sources agree on is that France alone turns over at least a ten-figure sum annually from winter tourism.
These numbers are difficult to comprehend, which only adds to the disassociation many people feel with the sport. Before even packing one’s suitcase, a four-figure sum needs to be shipped off to an assortment of foreign companies for the privilege of skiing.
A Popular Misconception
Skiing can be expensive. It also doesn’t need to be.
As previously mentioned, the US is home to the most expensive ski resorts with some resorts expecting $200 for a day’s lift pass. Europe also hosts some of the most exclusive resorts, with the Three Valleys Region in France hosting Courchevel, Méribel and Val Thorens. These are a short drive from the Swiss border, over which the price of a pint of beer alone approaches ₣10 (£9).
On the other hand, a quick browse on leading package holiday sites like Heidi, Crystal Ski or Sunweb presents some unexpected deals. Bulgaria, Andorra or even the French Alp resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc offer £300 week-trips. By comparison, summer package holidays to Benidorm, one of Britain’s favourite destinations – one which is by no means regarded as ‘upper class’ or ‘posh’ – offers week long trips starting from approximately £400.
When people are initially asked, ‘why is skiing an exclusive hobby?’, the standard response is simply because it’s expensive, especially when one lives in a country that doesn’t enjoy the vast skiable terrain offered in Central Europe. But, neither do we have reliable summers or warm seas. Resultantly, people travel abroad for their annual fix of Mediterranean sun.
As of 2018, 6.3 million people in the UK actively skied, approximately 10.4% of the population (Tooze, 2022, p. 1). In the same year, 26.6 million Brits went on a summer holiday, at no particular reduced cost as previously indicated, which represented 40% of the population (ABTA, 2018, p. 4). Despite preconceptions about the cost of snow sports, the at least 20 million strong group of people that opted to go on a summer, rather than winter, holiday failed to save money at all.
The subsequent question asks why there is such a rife misjudgement of the cost of skiing. Expensive resorts can be financially unreachable destinations for many, but cheaper locations are often very similarly priced to summer-time beach holidays. How, then, has the former become the “playground of the wealthy” and the latter become standard practice for wealthy nations like the UK?
A viable argument is that people expect it to be expensive, so do not check if it’s cheap. Skiing has a stigma attached to it that it is only available for the rich, so there is no point in checking if it’s available for those less wealthy. However, there is still an issue with this argument. Where is that initial stigma coming from? Why has an entire sport been dubbed financially exclusive because of the price of its most expensive resorts?
Perhaps, as with most misconceptions across the UK, the influence of the tabloid media has a role to play. The UK’s most widely read newspaper is the Daily Mail which has been ranked low for factual reporting due to “numerous failed fact checks and poor information sourcing”, alongside “extreme bias [and] consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies [… and] a complete lack of transparency, and/or is fake news” (Media Bias/Fact Check, n.d., p. 1). The first result presented on Google when the key words “ski” and “class” are searched is Rachel Johnson’s (a Daily Mail journalist) article titled “God, what WILL the middle class do if we can’t waste a fortune on skiing?” (Johnson, 2016, p. 1). In her opening paragraph, Johnson categorises all skiers as “smug moon-booted middle-class families” (Johnson, 2016, p. 1), setting the tone for the rest of her article to continue her avid criticism of all things skiing.
In a strikingly short ~530 word article, Johnson made critical references to the Alpine economy and the cost of skiing, alongside the perceived class privilege of skiers, eleven times.
She also added that she was writing her article from the Austrian resort of Turracherhöhe, where she was skiing with her family.
The Future of the Sport and of Those Who Do It
This season of 2022-2023 has seen the worst snowfall across the Alps for several decades, with climate change being identified as the cause of the decrease in snowfall by 40% over a 30-year period. Atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, and snowfall can be expected to continue to fall later and in less significant amounts season after season.
Resorts, then, must open later. Snow cannons must be turned on sooner and mountain-top restaurants must pay skeleton-staff for minimal customers. Ski hire shops will store their equipment longer than they rent it out and hotels will hope that there is greater uptake on summer holidays in mountain regions to make up for the unease in the skiing community.
All of this will lead to hiked prices. Alpine businesses will fear profit decreases so will drive prices higher to cover the drop. This will make the sport more exclusive, and it will make it more expensive than it currently is. The current misconception would be certified and the labels used to describe skiers today would become more commonly used by a greater number of people.
The serenity of mountain-top resorts also encourages countless air and ground miles for tourists, alongside the energy drain on national grids caused by electric chair lifts, gondolas and other essential equipment that make ski resorts skiable. This isn’t environmentally ideal, and it isn’t cheap either. A saying goes, ‘the best way to become a millionaire is to open a ski resort as a billionaire’.
Summer alpine tourism is being pushed relentlessly by tourism offices. Across the country, the Tour de France is celebrated in almost all the big ski resorts with the hope that foreign tourists will continue to send money into the areas that cost the most to open up come winter. Porte du Soleil, home to Châtel, Morzine, Les Gets and surrounding areas is one of the largest ski resorts in Europe (the Three Valleys mentioned earlier takes the top spot). Its marking of the tour outshone all other festivals in the region throughout 2022. Albertville hosted the Winter Olympics of 1992 with La Plagne exhibiting several important stages. Courchevel-Méribel was home to the FIS 2023 Ski World Championship over the course of two weeks.
Resorts will fight to keep prices low for as long as they can to maintain the tourism traffic and subsequent income. But, once the ski season length hits a certain size and the cost of opening heightens to unfeasible levels, something will have to give. Holiday-makers will be picking up the bill.
Benidorm will also be getting hotter and ever-more attractive for the Brits looking for a summer holiday. For the first time, summer holidays will actually be cheaper than winter holidays and a current misconception will become a statistic.
Brits love to ski, even though they live in one of the most expensive places in Europe to do it. Most Central Europeans have the luxury of driving to their nearest resort. Access to the Alps normally entails a flight to Lyon, Geneva, Zurich, Vienna or other followed by a transfer that tends to take longer than the plane. That does not dissuade the millions of Brits that continue to go year after year, banking on the serene landscape to prove white enough, cold enough and slippery enough to make the trip worthwhile.
Most of these people, at some point or another, will have been labelled according to a perceived class they must belong to as a result of their holiday preference. The socio-economic ties to skiing are profound and totally disregard the fact that skiing can be as affordable as a common summer holiday. But this is over-ridden by the widespread reach of tabloid media that prefers to create cultural divides in order to increase revenue through siding with specific socio-economic groups in society. In the case of skiing, the Daily Mail has chosen to side with those who do not ski (despite the fact that their own journalists do not fit into this category) and play them off against those who do. Conflict attracts views, views increase revenue. Whether Rachel Johnson likes to ski or not, she can still make money by arguing that her trip to Austria was a miserable one.
Skiing is only exclusive because it is believed to be. Expensive resorts will remain expensive, but cheaper ones will remain accessible for the foreseeable future. The activity was not established with ‘posh’ or ‘Tory’ in mind and there was never a turning point when hiked prices were motivated by exclusionary ideals. Skiing is a globally popular sport, yet the UK has a bigger social crisis than any of its neighbours when it comes to the socio-economic conflict it creates. It also happens to be that the United Kingdom is the ‘undisputed king of sensationalised tabloid journalism’.
The connection is there to be made.
ABTA, 2018. Holiday Habits Report, London: ABTA.
Allerfeldt, F., n.d. A Brief History Of Skiing - How Did We Get Where We Are Today?. [Online] Available at: https://www.mabeyski.com/news/the-history-of-skiing/ [Accessed 13 April 2023].
Johnson, R., 2016. God, what WILL the middle class do if we can't waste a fortune on skiing?. Daily Mail, 3 January, pp. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3382470/RACHEL-JOHNSON-God-middle-class-t-waste-fortune-skiing.html.
Media Bias/Fact Check, n.d. Daily Mail. [Online] Available at: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/daily-mail/ [Accessed 13 April 2023].
Skiresort.info, n.d. Ski resorts Alps. [Online] Available at: https://www.skiresort.info/ski-resorts/alps/#:~:text=List%20and%20map%20of%20all,served%20by%208%2C259%20ski%20lifts. [Accessed 13 April 2023].
Tooze, A., 2022. Chartbook #190: Do you ski? The political economy of snow, slopes and skiing. [Online] Available at: https://adamtooze.substack.com/p/chartbook-180-do-you-ski-the-political [Accessed 13 April 2023].