France bears well the largest area of skiable land in the world. The snow deserves its name “white gold” in the Hexagon, generating 6 billion euros per year, but nevertheless the ski resorts have to face new challenges like the economic crisis or global warming, not to mention the competition from more than 300 sites spread out across the mountains of the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Vosges and the Jura. In the Hautes-Alpes, the resort of Orres has understood well that its future means diversification, so much so that it must get out while the going is good and fight off the big marketing machines from Alpes du Nord.

Reporting by Cecile Mathy.

– Wait for me!

– Wait five minutes.

– How is the snow today?

– Very good, excellent, with better weather we are having a great time, what a pleasure!

A sunny Sunday in Orres. After two days of snow falls, the skiers are back on the slopes between 1600m and 2700m. They come mainly from the south of France, from the Marseilles area, like Sophie and Stephanie who are spending the weekend thanks to the social committee at work.

Sophie: “We are going skiing this afternoon, as it is nice. Yesterday we did not ski, there was a blizzard, so we skied a bit, but later, and well, we stopped early but today there is good weather. We are going skiing this afternoon, we are going to take advantage of it.”

Stephanie: “I started when I was very little in nursery school and in primary school, but then I did not do anything, so it’s been more than twelve years since I touched a ski, so yesterday it was a bit difficult getting back to it… a few falls, but afterwards it was going a lot better. But yesterday, it was more like starting out and seeing that I had not taken any lessons, there you see, I went off right away downhill and fell, but later it went much better.”

– So that even makes you want to come back agan by yourself?

– Oh yes, I will come back every year.

Not far from there, “the little soldiers’ club”, a nursery for children where budding skiers discover the joys of the snow and making their first slides.

Come on Fabio, are we going? Can you do me a nice one? Very big, very big from the back, very far.

– All right.

– To the end?

– Yes.

– Push down there, off you go, he’s off!

– Oh well, oh dear, it’s not the same there!

– Oh no, go for it, yeah! Great, good boy!

Lea also comes from Marseilles. She is 7.

“The snow is cold but when you put on your mittens or your gloves, it’s not cold.

– Have you fallen a lot?

– Yes, but it is not bad because I’m not going too quickly sometimes, but sometimes I go quickly.

Jade lives not for from the resort in Embrun, the biggest town in the area.

“These are the new skis which Father Christmas brought for me. They are violet, pink.”

William, her dad:

“They are the ones who want to come and then we encourage them too to go skiing, as we are in the mountains, in any case you can’t do without going skiing. The children love coming here, and then it is not awfully expensive. So the parents are happy, the children are here, having fun, and we, well we can do as we wish.”

Here, there is something for everyone: in addition to downhill skiing, there is cross country skiing, paths for trying out show shoes, dog sled rides, a skating rink, a library and even an entertainment hall. There is choice here which has pleased Stephanie and Fabien. They have driven eleven hours from the north of France to spend a week in Orres with the family.

“In the end for me personally, I don’t like skiing. It is not even a big thing for me; it is really my husband who loves skiing. Personally I don’t come for the skiing. We come to relax and to do things that we don’t to at home as at home we don’t have mountains. In the end I think that it is rare that people come only for the skiing. So you must think also about the after ski, after 5pm. As here, for example, in our hotel, there is a swimming pool , there is… so well I find that very nice, the after ski, because it is true that at 5pm, that’s a bit… there is still a good few hours before bed time! Well it’s true that we pay attention however to the prices but both of us work and we tell ourselves that at least we deserve this reward for going to work all year, there’s a thing that we make e point of honour, it’s a week in summer, and a week in winter.”

A recurring theme, as nowadays skiers don’t spend more than four hours on average on the slopes. The resort has had to change to these new demands. It has diversified its activities to respond to demand. Marie-Aymee Buffet is a councillor in the local authority of Orres:

“Skiing is no longer enough. The customers have to have a whole range of other during their holiday. So the simplest activities are the dogs, the snow shoes, the cross country skiing, the hikes in the snow, but also other activities which we started two years ago: a covered ice rink and an entertainment hall which offers quite a series of shows and concerts throughout the tourist season. There is an enormous number of ski resorts in France, nearly 400, so the competition is very fierce and all the resorts now have good quality so what do we bet on to make a difference? For us, our idea is really to make a difference in the mood, in the welcome, in the cheerfulness. There you are. The ski slopes are a very beautiful area, very nice, very interesting but it cannot be at the altitude of the large ski areas which are in the Northern Alps, so we’re betting on our welcome, our enthusiasm that’s what our customers come to get, finding a happy mood, a southern feel because we are very chose to the south, to Marseilles, and so a very warm atmosphere in the resort.”

Benoit Ceas has also noticed this change, he has a hire shop in the resort.

“Let’s see, for several years for cross country, for snow shoes, we’ve been feeling that people want to do other things, they want to do downhill, but they also want to discover other things, going walking in the mountains, doing cross country or doing a simple walk and then with the show shoes, or going off with the family or with a group, doing a half day or a full day walk.”

Joel and Chantal, wearing snow shoes, return to the crowded resort after a long walk.

– Very nice, the trails have been prepared well and then it is well packed down so you can walk easily. There is no-one about, there is no crowd, and they there is no uphill ski-lift, there is nothing to wait for, we walk, we walk at our own speed and that’s that.

The report of Orres, as many others, is a real hive of activity. The ski industry makes a living for lots of people. It represents about 600 jobs. On a national basis in France, the figures are more than 100,000 for an annual income of 6 billion euros. So of necessity every year the professionals are praying to the gods for snow so that there is a lot of it especially in these times of global warming, but Emile is not worried. He has been living here for more than 50 years.

– Winter will always be winter at our place in the mountains. Well I want of course that they be snow more or less, but personally I have known five years ago, winters when there wasn’t any snow or very, very little. There was a fall or two from time to time in winter and that was all, we came back to life and so I think that… I am not against, not against, I understand global warming, but winter will always be winter where we live.

In spite of doubt, the projects go ahead. The end of white gold is not tomorrow. An optimism which is expressed in the French applications for the winter Olympics of 2018. Nice, Annecy and Grenoble are in the running but also Pelvoux a little village about thirty kilometres from Orres. Benoit Ceas.

– Pelvoux, it’s the tadpole of the candidates; you can look on it with sympathy, because we tell ourselves Pelvoux is a little village. It is true that it is a project which is a bit… which is crazy, which is a bit ambitious. Stepping back and listening a bit to the arguments, we say to ourselves: “well, why not? why not?” Because this return to the mountains leaving a bit, what can we say, these big urban areas which I don’t doubt have a super case, but Pelvoux has a case which seems to make progress. Already for the economic case, many, many things are already in place from the Olympic Games in Turin, so all the big infrastructure which costs a lot of money has ready been built, so that’s an advantage. In any case, the publicity for the Southern Alps, is enormous, it is very, very good. They are talking about it. For us in Orres, we have a downhill slope, the Pousterle which is a part of the three most beautiful slopes which are merged as a downhill slope, so for us, the people of Orres, it is a fabulous trump card. So in the end, will we get it? It is true that it is ambitious but why not, you have to dream and then the project at the start it was a bit, how can I put it, it made you smile a bit but we see sometimes little villages which have had the Olympic Games and similarly they set off with an idea a bit like that, hair brained, but I think that the case has been well drawn up with an ambitious project with an ecological and economic dimension and that’s important.

The response from the French National and Olympic Committee is due on 18 March. The host town will be chosen internationally in 2011.

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