CRANS MONTANA, Switzerland (Reuters) - Across the Swiss Alps cash registers are ringing out as hotels, ski-lift companies and shops revel in the best snowfall in years.
After several seasons of patchy snow cover and even predictions of the end of Alpine skiing due to global warming, the winter sports industry is having a bumper year.
But beneath the smiles there is a real worry the good times will evaporate as quickly as the winter snow melts, and already there are signs this ski season may be a final “hurrah” before the global recession really bites.
That would be tough in a country where tourism makes up more than 5 percent of gross domestic product.
Throngs of skiers are swishing down the pistes of Crans Montana in southern Switzerland, the queues at the lifts are as long as ever and the powder is deeper than many a year.
Heavy snowfalls have enticed more people than ever onto the slopes and the Swiss association of cable cars says it has seen 10 percent more people using lifts.
“Some cable car companies at smaller resorts, such as Buerchen, have seen an increase of 20 to 30 percent this season,” said Urs Zenhaeusern, head of tourism in Valais, adding these areas were visited most by the Swiss and Germans.
Clothing and equipment manufacturers such as Mammut and Stoeckli, also say they have had a sensational season so far, as skiers and snowboarders update their wardrobes and equipment.
“This winter started like no other. When it snows in low-lying areas then it is really good for business as that makes people think about skiing and winter sports,” said Michael Gyssler, head of marketing at Mammut, whose jackets can cost up to about 1,000 Swiss francs ($850).
“We ... have seen a double-digit rise in sales this winter,” Gyssler said.
Ski and clothing manufacturer Stoeckli has also seen its products fly off the rails as shoppers seek high-quality goods.
“We are not as dependent on the economy as other companies in other sectors. People who are very enthusiastic about sport and who really love skiing will still buy a new pair of skis and save elsewhere,” said Adrian Albrecht, head of marketing at Stoeckli which makes up to 50,000 pairs of skis a year.
“This could change, but in the short term we think that this will remain the case,” he said.
“The most important thing for us is that there is snow. This is more important than the economy,” Albrecht said.
But cracks are already appearing.
“People are now being a bit more careful about buying expensive bottles of wine and are slowly starting to watch how much they are spending,” said Joseph Bonvin, owner of four-star hotel Art de Vivre in the upmarket resort of Crans Montana.
The newly refurbished hotel, which looks onto the dramatic mountains of Valais, saw a double-digit rise in bookings in December and January -- easily beating last year’s record levels.
But the number of guests started to fall in February as economic fears deepened. “Every morning when there is another crisis, people are becoming more worried and therefore more careful,” Bonvin said.
So far the Swiss economy has held up better than other countries thanks to keen shoppers and low unemployment in the Alpine state, but even the Swiss will feel the pinch in coming months as the downturn eats into demand for exports.
The Swiss tourism board expects the number of overnight stays this season to be lower than last, with destinations usually popular with visitors from the United States and Britain hardest hit. The board has even asked parliament for cash for extra marketing.
Fewer Russian and British tourists as well as the strong Swiss franc have dampened business in Crans Montana.
Christian Rey, owner of Rene Rey Sports, has seen a steady decline in sales at his shop in January and February and expects this season to be worse than last year.
The appetite for luxury accessories is also waning and more consumers are on the hunt for a bargain before buying.
“We are starting to feel the crisis now. Maybe a bit later than in other countries, but we are starting to feel it too,” said Andres Triponez, owner of jewelry shop Triponez in Crans Montana, noting about 80 percent of customers want discounts.
Editing by Matthew Jones and Sara Ledwith