Going off-piste: homebuying in ski resorts from Austria to China

The number of skiers may be falling in Europe and the US but new options are opening up
Skiing in Austria © Adie Bush/Getty Images

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It wasn’t exactly the toughest of line-ups. To be awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing only had to beat Almaty in Kazakhstan — Oslo having withdrawn before the final cut when its bid lost the support of Norway’s ruling party. Almaty is home to just one of the 19 resorts in Kazakhstan, where annual ski visits number 0.5 per cent of the total in the US, the world’s most popular ski destination.

China hardly springs to mind either when one pictures the brisk, precarious pleasures of alpine recreation. It is true that the country had 568 ski resorts by last year, more than Japan, according to the 2015 China Ski Industry White Book report. Yet only half of these have snow-grooming machines, and eight out of 10 don’t even have a ski lift, leaving skiers to hitch up the mountain on skimobiles.

Worse still, the Chinese don’t seem to be that interested in skiing. They may have made 12.5m visits to ski resorts in 2015 — a respectable figure against the 56m in the US — but in only one in 50 cases did people stay overnight, and a mere 20,000 involved stays of more than a week.

This being China, a recalibration of the nation’s sporting tastes is little more than a presidential decree away. President Xi Jinping has pledged that, by the start of the games, 300m Chinese will have taken up winter sports — 44 times the number who went skiing in 2015.

Past form suggests that Chinese property developers will have no problem conjuring up a decent number of fully functioning ski resorts from currently barren mountainsides. China’s Dalian Wanda group — which in July secured a £500m loan to build what will be London’s largest residential skyscraper — spent five times that building the Changbaishan ski resort in 2012. It has 40km of pistes across 43 runs and a decent spread of top-end hotels — including a Park Hyatt, a Sheraton and a Westin — for the essential après-ski combination of rubdown, spa and cocktail.

Vanke Songhua Lake Resort near Jilin, north-east China

If the location isn’t quite to your liking — Changbaishan stretches along the border with North Korea, after all — you could try Vanke Songhua Lake Resort. Opened last year, it has 31 slopes and seven lifts, and lies 15km from the city of Jilin, in north-east China, from where Longjia international airport is half an hour by high-speed train. Vanke Group is selling a three-bedroom villa adjacent to the lifts for $958,000, although properties are at present only available to mainland Chinese.

As the Chinese authorities concentrate on convincing sceptical citizens of the merits of spending a week being wet, cold and largely on their backsides, the industry in the west is struggling with its own existential threat.

Novice skiers at Shijinglong Ski Field near Beijing © Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Skiers are continuing to desert the world’s most popular slopes. The decline continued in 2015, with total visits across the eight largest markets (including France, the US and Switzerland) down 1.6 per cent to 280m, according to the 2016 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism, the industry’s annual study produced by Swiss researcher Laurent Vanat.

In the US, resorts are spending lavishly to retain skiers and attract a new generation. The operator of the Vail resort in Colorado has invested $25m in a new activity centre for summer and has beefed up hiking and biking trails. Perhaps the authorities are hoping to steal a march on Aspen, Vail’s neighbouring resort and age-old rival. Knight Frank is selling a grand six-bedroom home there for $15.99m.

Six-bedroom house in West Aspen, $15.99m © David O Marlow

As older skiers hang up their poles, the younger ones replacing them are spending less time — and money — on their trips. The average length of trips by US millennials is 4.8 days, says Dave Belin of consultants RRC Associates, while for those in their fifties, the average stay is 6.7 days. Even the more affluent members of Generation X are taking shorter breaks than the baby boomers did when they were the same age, he says. Belin estimates that to keep the global industry at its current size two new younger skiers will have to take up the sport for every older one who quits.

Low prices could help draw Generation X back to mountain property and, one assumes, are a prerequisite for impoverished millennials before they even consider a purchase.

Seven-bedroom chalet in Rougemont, near Gstaad, Switzerland, $12.7m

Both groups might start by crossing Gstaad, in Switzerland, off their shortlist. Helped by the shortage of stock — second homes may only account for a fifth of properties in any Swiss municipality — the canton’s enticing tax regime and the area’s high elevation, prices in the town gained 13 per cent in the 12 months to June 2016 to SFr34,000 ($34,250) per sq metre. This puts Gstaad top of Knight Frank’s annual Alpine Property Index. This was in spite of Swiss ski visitor numbers declining 17 per cent in 2015, according to Vanat. Knight Frank is selling a seven-bedroom chalet in Rougemont near Gstaad, just over two hours’ drive from Geneva’s airport, with a spa and staff accommodation for SFr12.5m ($12.7m).

In Gstaad, €1m would buy you a 34 sq metre mountain hutch but, over the French border in Chamonix, it would stretch to something nearly three times the size. With the highest lift climbing to almost 3,800 metres, visitors stand a good chance of snow when the winter fall is sparse. For higher rollers, Knight Frank is selling a four-bedroom chalet in the town for €6.95m.

Four-bedroom chalet in Les Bois, Chamonix, France, €6.95m © Gérald Trésallet

Bargain-seekers might consider Austria. Resorts there may be generally lower, with shorter ski seasons, says Paul Tostevin of Savills, but they make up for it with longer summer seasons.

Savills reckons prime prices range from €3,300 to €7,500 per sq metre, compared with an average of €16,800 in Switzerland. There aren’t many places where you could get a penthouse with lake and mountain views for €795,000, but in Zell am See, 75km south of Salzburg airport, Savills is selling a two-bedroom apartment at that price. It has access to the neighbouring hotel’s spa complex and includes underground parking, making it a firm rental prospect too — which would help with the mortgage and is maybe just tempting enough for you to reconsider buying that beach apartment in the Bahamas.

Buying guide

What you can buy for . . .

€300,000 A two-bedroom apartment with a terrace in Zell am See, Austria, or a one-bedroom flat in Méribel, France

€900,000 A two-bedroom flat in the centre of Verbier, Switzerland, a few minutes’ walk from the lifts

€3m A large detached chalet near the lifts and town centre in Val d’Isère, France

More listings at propertylistings.ft.com

Photographs: Adie Bush/Getty Images; Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images; David O Marlow; Gérald Trésallet

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