Trends in winter sport tourism: challenges for the future

¨ Wiebke Unbehaun, Ulrike Probstl and Wolfgang Haider

Wiebke Unbehaun and ¨ Ulrike Probstl are based at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna, Institute for Transport Studies, Vienna, Austria. Wolfgang Haider is based at the School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University Vancouver, Burnaby, Canada.

Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to survey climate change impacts on winter sport tourists’ activity and destination choice, to estimate shifts in customer demand and to provide recommendations and decision support for destination management. Design/methodology/approach – A total of 540 skiers from Vienna, Austria were surveyed with a standardized online questionnaire. The survey also contained a discrete choice experiment a stated preference method which forces respondents into trade-off behavior between various possible combinations of destination profiles. Findings – The results show a strong preference for destination attributes promising sufficient (natural) snow conditions. In winters that lack snow, resorts in high destinations gain importance and travel distances lose some relevance. A large proportion of skiers would forgo skiing if it becomes more expensive. Snow independent substitutes are accepted as a short time compensation but not for the whole winter holiday. When asked to trade off additional costs and additional travel distances for a snow secure destination, the majority of winter sport tourists are willing to incur some additional cost but the majority reach thresholds at about 10 percent additional cost and 2h additional driving. Originality/value – The survey shows, that a discrete choice experiment is a suitable method to cover the complexity of activity and destination choice. Therefore it is an unique individual-oriented approach to consider customer demand and to evaluate the success of offer setting in tourism management. The sequential presentation of three related choice sets is a novel contribution in the field of choice experiments, and appears to be well suited to simulate climate change-related effects. Keywords Sports, Global warming, Consumer behaviour, Austria Paper type Research paper

1. Introduction
In many Austrian regions winter tourism is an important source of income. Therefore they are highly dependent on satisfactory snow conditions. The lack of snow during several recent winters provided many alpine ski destinations a first glimpse of the potential impacts of climate change. The question arises, how different types of winter sport enthusiasts react to changing skiing conditions caused by climate change and how attractive snow independent substitutes might be. To pursue this question, a survey of Viennese skiers and boarders was conducted with an online questionnaire. The application of a discrete choice experiment secures an individual oriented approach that takes the preferences of skiers and boarders into account and helps to identify the importance of a large set of attributes for the destination choice process. The result of the inquiry aims to evaluate future options for winter (sport) tourism management. Winter tourism in the European Alps is highly dependent on snow based winter sport. At the end of the 1980s, a period of several winters lacking snow gave the alpine communities a first idea of what climate change could mean for regions dependent on winter sport tourism. In the winter of 2006/2007, the tourism branch was confronted with a serious decline of bookings of about 25 percent. The lack of snow at the preparation phase of one of the major

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VOL. 63 NO. 1 2008, pp. 36-47, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1660-5373

DOI 10.1108/16605370810861035

¨ international ski events, the world cup races in Kitzbuhl, lead to a large number of booking cancellations. Although the organizers see the World Cup event still as a success, it must be pointed out that profits declined from e24.6 million in 2006 to 2007 to e13.5 million (Eisermann, 2007). While scientists offer different views about the magnitude and the exact effects of climate change, it is a fact that a change of climate is happening. This will modify the characteristics and the quality of winter sport tourism. Climate change will affect the Austrian ski destinations in different ways. According to Breiling (1993), especially the ski destinations in lower lying areas of the Alps must anticipate negative effects on snow cover and ski quality. Scientists are expecting a spatial and temporal concentration of ski activities in the future ¨ (Abegg, 1996; Burki, 2000). Ski destinations can react with at least three different strategies: 1. adaptation measures to secure snow based winter sport tourism (e.g. artificial snow-making, extensions in higher altitudes and expansion in glacier areas); 2. payment of compensation to clients in situations with insufficient snow (e.g. additional winter activities) to maintain visitors’ loyalty; and 3. development of alternative tourism strategies (e.g. investment in 4-season-tourism especially strengthening the summer season). The development over the last decades shows some significant trends in winter sport tourism. The number of repeat visitors and the length of stay decrease. The tourists are willing to travel further to holiday destinations that can guarantee snow and have high quality of accommodation and entertainment. The increasing skill levels of users, their ever increasing demands on quality and their increasing travel expertise, combined with improved transportation infrastructure have increased the mobility of winter sport tourists to unprecedented levels. Obviously, both the customers and the supply side are reacting to the changing conditions. Several tourism studies focus on climate change impact assessment and adaptation strategies for winter destinations, but only a select few consider the adaptation strategies of winter tourists and the consequences for their activity and destination choice. This void is surprising, as ultimately it is the preferences of the winter clients for ski destinations that will determine the destinations’ future prospects; therefore, a demand oriented investigation about preferences for various supply side variables is important. An integral component of such a preference based evaluation should be the prospective success of compensation measures which include adaptation behavior to secure snow, as well as the customer acceptance of snow independent alternatives.

2. Objectives of the survey
This survey focuses on attitudes, motivations, perception and preferences of winter sport tourists, and culminates with a discrete choice experiment emulating the adaptation processes of winter sport tourists to destination conditions of climate change. By using a discrete choice experiment, the stated preferences of individuals related to the destination choice in winter sport will be analyzed. This information is investigated to estimate future trends in ski tourism as well as their consequences for the alpine skiing regions. In spite of the fact that past surveys have addressed affects of climate change on tourists, only a few considered travel behavior patterns, and very few studies employed a strong individual orientated approach. This paper uses a discrete choice experiment to examine winter tourists’ destination choice as a consequence on changing skiing conditions under conditions of climate change. By asking respondents to evaluate a sample of ski destinations described by a set of attributes, the results of the discrete choice experiment provided a methods for a more realistic and comprehensive assessment of the individual destination choice behavior of winter sport enthusiasts. For the decision makers and tourist managers, knowledge about the changes in

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destination choice of winter sport tourists is necessary to adapt their performance to tie customers’ loyalty to attain their requirements for a satisfying experience.

3. Methods
This study uses a discrete choice experiments (DCE) to examine winter sport tourists’ preferences on ski destination performance intended to learn about the customer reaction on changing winter sport conditions and to estimate the development prospect of different kinds of destination in consequence of climate change. This study used an on-line survey instrument to administer the DCE. Using the Internet allows a relative long and complex survey and the opportunity to present the DCE in an attractive and entertaining way. It also allows using complex filters in the questionnaire and to sample individual preferences. In the questionnaire the DCE is combined with a standard questionnaire. The inquiry of active skiers and boarders comprises the following topics:
B B B B B

skiing biographies and reasons for changes in the destination choice; previous trip characteristics; tourists’ destination motivations; travel motives and the preferences in winter sport; destination choice determining attributes and the potentials of snow independent substitutes (part of the DCE); expectations according to climate change; and socio-demographic characters of the respondent.

B B

3.1 The approach of DCE The idea of the DCE is to collect and analyze individual preference to measure variations in choice behavior under a discrete number of hypothetical scenarios or product profiles (Louviere et al., 2000). Discrete choice experiments have been successfully applied to spatial consumer choice behavior (Timmermanns and Gollege, 1990), to tourism and recreation issues (see Apostolakis and Jaffry, 2005; Crouch and Louviere, 2003; Louviere and Timmermanns, 1990; Haider and Ewing, 1990), to resource economics (Swallow et al., 1994, e.g. willingness to pay) and for comparison of stated and revealed preferences (Boxall et al., 1996). No study has used the DCE to assess the tourism effects of global warming and the solutions emerging from this development. In tourism DCEs are often applied to analyze the perception or images of goods like destinations, preferences for tourism management alternatives and destination choice behavior. Findings emanating from those studies illustrate the utility of the multi-attribute DCE technique in examining tourist preferences for hypothetical multi-attribute destinations and the relevance of single attributes in the choice behavior. The DCE is implemented to map the trade-offs in destination choice of winter sport tourists as close to reality as possible. The goal of the DCE is to model the destination choice and to analyze the trade offs between different ski destinations, the significance of sufficient snow and the acceptance of snow independent substitutes. The DCE takes the multi-attribute nature of destination choice into account and allows also an exploration of non-existing alternatives that supports the scenario conduction (Haider, 2002; Timmermanns, 1984; Timmermanns and Gollege, 1990). Because of its decompositional character, the discrete choice experiment (DCE) allows to generate every possible profile of ski destination out of the attributes and to calculate the probability of choice for any possible profile. This information will later on be used in a decision support system (DSS) that helps to estimate further development potentials of winter sport destinations and supports the trade off of further development goals and investments. The statistical analysis is based on the general assumptions of random utility models (see Proenca, 1995; Halperin and Gale, 1984). In stated preference models, alternatives are defined as combinations of attributes with different attribute levels. Each alternative is

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evaluated as a whole, and random utility theory postulates that choices can be modeled as a function of the attributes of the alternatives (Ben-Akiva and Lerman, 1985). Random utility models assume – according to the neoclassical economy theory – that decision-makers have perfect discrimination capability. The utility is modeled as a random variable. Random Utility Models model the factors that influence the destination choice of test persons. The selection of one alternative over another implies that the utility of the chosen alternative is higher than the other (McFadden, 1974).

3.2 The design of the DCE Within this survey the hypothetical ski destinations were described by eight attributes concerning the performance of the ski destination, environmental aspects, costs and travel time. The attributes were defined with the aim to describe the quality and costs of the skiing or boarding experience and to keep quality of accommodation out of consideration. Each attribute consists of two to four levels to provide sufficient variation to matter for tourists and to allow the simulation of current and potential situations. The final set of attributes and attribute levels is based on the synthesis of data about Austrian ski destinations, literature review and experts discussion. Within the choice set the following attributes were used:
B B B B B B B B

size of the skiing area; amount above 1,200 m; days skiing not possible; amount of slopes with artificial snow; waiting time; environmental certification; price per day; and travel time.

To generate profiles from the list of attributes and attribute levels experimental design techniques were used. An orthogonal fractional factorial design plan resolution III was used to generate the 64 unique choice sets required for this study (Montgomery, 2001). In the DCE section of this survey four choice sets out of the 64 were shown to any one respondent. Each choice set contained descriptions of two hypothetical mountain ski destinations. The respondent was asked to choose one of the two options, or neither of them. The respondents were also told to imagine, that they are planning a one-week ski holidays at a ski destination. The price and quality of accommodation are the same as they were at their winter sport holidays before. This study added one further level of complexity to the response tasks of the DCE, to probe further into the trade-off behavior during possible climate change effects (see Figure 1): 1. Step 1. Choice between the two hypothetical profiles of ski destinations to learn about the preferences concerning the ski related performance of winter sport destinations. 2. Step 2. Choice between the chosen alternative in step 1 and an equivalent destination with guaranteed perfect snow conditions. 3. Step 3. If the snow-safe options was chosen in step 2, then the destination chosen in step 1 was offered one more time against the snow-safe option, but this time with a suite of additional resort amenities offered free of charge. The survey was conducted with active Viennese winter sport enthusiast. The Viennese winter sport enthusiasts were drawn from a sample of active skiers and boarders, who where recruited in the winter seasons 2004/2005 and 2005/2006 during their trips in Austrian ski destinations. After a short face-to-face interview at the cable car stations of ski destinations, the respondents were asked for their email contacts and the willingness to join a further more comprehensive online survey after their visit has finished.

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Figure 1 Sequences of DCE

The online survey was pretested and after some subsequent refinements a link to the final web survey was sent to all recruited individuals in an email. A lottery was used as an incentive to all survey participants. At the end, 538 questionnaires were completed, for a return rate of 34,3 percent. The results were analyzed using LIMDEP 8.0 (Greene, 2002).

4. Selected results of the discrete choice model
The survey represents a sample of 47 percent female and 53 percent male winter sport enthusiast (n ¼ 538). The age structure of the sample represents the age structure of skiers and boarders older than 18 years in Austrian ski destinations. Almost 74 percent of the surveyed people are between 25 and 50 years old, about 20 percent are older than 50. The sample can be described as follows:
B B B B B

75 percent main winter sport activity is skiing; 8 percent boarders; 6 percent Nordic skiing; 9 percent back country skiing; and 2 percent are mainly proceeding other winter sport activities.

The ski/board starting age shows that the majority starts skiing quite early (skiers: 89 percent started at an age under 16). Boarding is often a second learned activity. The skiers think that their skills are quite good (75 percent good or very good). Only one third of the boarders believe that they are doing well. The survey results show that climate change is already a topic for winter sport tourists. A total of 73 percent of the surveyed people are aware of climate chance and its impacts. More than 70 percent of the surveyed people have experiences with insufficient snow conditions in a former winter holiday. Some of them have already changed their destination choice and travel behavior in wintertime. Most of the tourists (68 percent) would give up their destination loyalty in favor of a more snow secure destination, if there were several consecutive winters with snow deficiency. In that situation, a full quarter of the surveyed people would no longer ski. More importantly, this decision is found across all types of socio-demographic characteristics, not only elderly people and families (see Figure 2). Furthermore, a share of almost 30 percent of winter sport tourists would accept a voucher for a seven-day summer holiday to compensate of a four-day ski holiday in case of insufficient snow.

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Figure 2 Destination choice after several winters lacking snow

Several papers are dealing with new concepts to adapt the tourism in winter to the changing ¨ ¨ snow conditions (Burki and Elsasser, 2003; Neuhauser, 2006). New strategies are proposing the use of health and spa-facilities, cultural events and an enhanced service offer to substitute the skiing activities. Figure 3 shows that the main motives for tourists on winter holidays are the physical activity, spending time with friends, and the winter experience. They are in general not willing to

Figure 3 Motives of winter sport tourists

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experiment with new activities (ice golf, horse riding etc.) or to join events, parties and an intensive social or cultural offer. The main motives are in good agreement with the destination choice determining aspects in Figure 4. Here, the results of the inquiry show the importance of snow cover and winter experience. Furthermore, the size of the ski-able area and the quality of the accommodation are influencing factors in the decision making process and the selection of the preferred destination. Figure 5 shows the part-worth utilities for each of the attributes presented in the profiles of step 1 of the DCE for all respondents. All attributes are significant on at least one level, and the most important attributes are price and travel distance. The larger the size of the ski-able area, the higher is the probability for the destination to be chosen. Also, the altitude of the destination has a significant positive effect on the probability of choice. The higher the share of slopes above an altitude of 1,200 m the more interesting is the destination. Winter sport enthusiasts tended to prefer a destination with the opportunity to ski down to the bottom of the valley. Areas with a high probability that a run down to the valley bottom is impossible affect the choice negatively. Also short waiting time at the lifts and gondolas is an important criterion for the attractiveness of a destination. Long waiting times are definitely not acceptable. The results of the choice model clearly show the preference for ski resorts located in high altitude. Artificial snow, the amount of slopes where artificial snow ensures good winter sport conditions, is not highly appreciated by the skiers. This seems to be accepted as a necessity, rather than simply a positive attribute of a winter sport destination. Furthermore, waiting time, the price level and accessibility in terms of travel time are crucial attributes for the decision making process. The analysis shows that the attractiveness of snow secure destinations is influenced by its price and the travel time to get there, and most likely even more so a combination of both. The skiers and borders seem to be very sensitive to the overall conditions. If the following conditions would combine in one scenario, 70 to 85 percent of the skiers or borders would quit the sport this year: Figure 4 Important destination choice determinants

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Figure 5 Part worth utilities of ski destination attributes

B B B B B B B B

size of the skiing area: 40-80 km; amount above 1,200 m: 20 percent; days skiing not possible: 35 days; amount of slopes with artificial snow: 80 percent (little influence); waiting time: 15-20 min; environmental certification: no (little influence); price per day: e42; and travel time 4-6: hours drive.

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All results of the DCE and the revealed data show, the strong preferences for attribute levels promising sufficient snow conditions in a winter sport destination. The winter sport tourists are very sensitive towards travel time and travel distances. The DCE shows that the very short and very long travel times have significant positive, and respectively negative effects on the destination choice. The break even is at 5 hours. This finding is in agreement with the actual travel times when asked for the acceptable travel distance to a ski destination for a holiday trip. Only one third (36 percent) of the respondents stated that more than 500 km would be acceptable to go for a winter sport holiday, while only 14 percent of respondents traveled further than 500 km (Table I). In the second stage of the choice experiment the skiers and borders furthermore were asked under which conditions they would prefer and shift to a more snow secure ski resort which is more expensive and further to travel. Almost half of the respondents (n ¼ 258) preferred the snow sure alternative. It turned out that the majority accepts increasing cost of about 10 percent. Increasing costs of 20 percent are here the threshold value, where more than 50 percent would no longer choose the snow secure region (see Figure 6). The influence of travel time is not as strong as the financial aspect. Here the threshold value is about another three hour driving time, when 50 percent would no longer choose the snow secure region. Increasing travel costs of 10 percent and parallel an increasing travel time of two hours lead to less acceptance of the more snow secure destination. Finally the respondents were asked whether they would shift back from the expensive snow secure ski resort to a less secure resorts but with free extras. This choice should give insights in the relevance of substitutes like child care or other improvement of services, wellness and spa-facilities, which are perceived as crucial elements of adaptation strategies during the winter season. Only 40 percent of the skiers shift back from snow secure ski resort to the less snow secure Ski resort and its free additional offers. For about 60 percent of the respondents Table I Acceptable travel distances for holidays and the effective travel distance of the last holiday
Acceptable travel distance for holidays (%) Up to 100 km 101-250 km 251-500 km 501-700 km More than 700 km Total Note: n ¼ 514 0.8 5.9 57.6 23.6 12.1 100 Effective travel distance last holiday (%) 11.7 21.0 52.9 10.5 3.9 100

Figure 6 DCE results: relative relevance for ski destinations attributes in the trade off between common ski destinations and ski destinations very sure of snow

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the substitutes are not relevant. They still prefer the snow secure ski resort. This result shows, that the strategy proposed by many researchers and consultants to ensure the amount of tourist in winter via additional offers and services will attract not even a half of the skiers.

5. Implication and consequences
Winter tourism is highly depending on future climatic conditions. Overall, the DCE proved to be a suitable method to cover the complexity of the destination choice behavior of winter sport tourists. The study documents a close relation between snow, winter experience and booking behavior. The main adaptation strategies to deal with changed skiing conditions by the skiers is to travel further, to book late and to prefer ski resorts in high altitudes. The results illustrate that in winters with less snow, destinations in high altitudes become more important and travel distances loose some relevance. Therefore the behavior will contribute to further climate change by longer travel distances, as about 40 percent of all private traveling is caused by recreational purposes. Obviously compensation measures of the destinations also have influence on the destination choice. Especially in context with the strong winter 2005/2006 the survey shows that there are other requirements besides snow security concerning the quality of the destinations’ performance. Other results underline that adapted strategies are mostly accepted as compensation for a short time, but not for the whole winter holiday. Otherwise, a shift to another destination – also in other parts of the world – is likely to happen. Those winter sport resorts, which are still focusing on the maintenance of winter sport activities should consider that the clients are rather sensitive on waiting time and price. The results of the DCE show that the overall vacation cost influences the choice behavior enormously. Therefore it is not possible to increase the transportation fees to compensate the increasing cost for artificial snow. Hence the challenge will be how to avoid a negative cycle between increasing operating cost, increasing charges for the visitors, followed by a decline in visitation. In order to maintain an attractive offer, new cooperation e.g. with hotels and other tourism services should be developed. The study underlines again the preference for natural snow conditions and winter experience in high mountain areas if need be. Artificial snow can only ensure sufficient snow conditions for the activity per se, but it is not perceived as a positive attribute of a ski resort. An increasing amount of artificial snow should not be focus in the marketing of a resort. The DCE, which has been used in an innovative three step approach the first time, allows to evaluate the idea of additional offers as substitutes for good snow conditions and winter experience in winters lacking snow. These substitutes include improved health and wellness packages and other advanced services. The survey results show the limitation of these strategies, although it is encouraging that sizeable minority segments are attracted to these options. Following the results this strategy proposed by many researchers and consultants will attract up to 40 percent of the skiers. The results underline that there is some willingness to switch from winter to summer tourism: creative offers and booking alternatives can contribute to a shift from winter to summer holidays in the mountains. New ideas, incentives and initiatives are required to further support a shift from winter tourism orientation to four-season tourism in many parts of the mountains. But the shifts in supply and infrastructure provision have to be accompanied with changes in the mindset of the local population and the guests, otherwise the offered products might not meet the winter and summer tourists’ expectations.

6. Further research
Beside climate change, the tourism industry has to meet other challenges which may influence its development, such as the structural change in agriculture and land use, new target groups from China and Russia that are less focused on winter sport, the demographic change characterized by an aging generation and changes in tourists’ attitudes. Tourists become more flexible, more mobile and are much more focused on new experiences.

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Furtherresearchshouldconcentrateontheinterrelationshipbetweenallthesechallengesofthe tourism sector, and not only on climate change. New visitors from other countries and new offers for an aging society could also substitute the decline in winter. Therefore, structural, demographic and achanging demand should beincludes in new concepts. Moreover, the local population should be involved in this process. Methods to enhance the public awareness and to start a communication process are needed.

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Corresponding author
Wiebke Unbehaun can be contacted at: wiebke.unbehaun@boku.ac.at

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