The Scottish Government has approved plans to obtain a £20.5 million cash injection for the Cairngorm Mountain ski area above Aviemore in the Highlands to help it get back on track and move forward as a major ski destination. Around £16 million, of the money, will help fix the main funicular railway of the centre that accesses the upper mountain and is a year-round attraction in its own right. After structural concerns, the funicular has been out of service for two years. At about the same time, the lift company operating the centre plunged the centre’s former private owners into bankruptcy, leaving it under public ownership.
Over the years, the Highlands & Islands Enterprise (HIE) Regional Development Body has invested more than £1 million on snowmaking and other projects to try and keep the centre running while deciding on the funicular, which would allegedly cost almost as much to remove as repair. HIE also commissioned the SE Group’s North American ski resort designers to study how the Cairngorms could move forward as a viable mountain resort. It is uncertain if the £4 million or so of funding proposed beyond the cost of funicular repair will go into any of their infrastructure recommendations.
The plans, revealed in November 2018, were for a £27 million, 10-year investment programme, including two new chairlifts, 30 hectares more ski terrain, a zip wire, and summer mountain bike trails. The idea is that it will become a place for visitors and locals to enjoy throughout the year! In addition to transporting thousands of annual visitors back to Cairngorm next winter, the funicular will also provide access to the mountain environment for a wide range of visitors, including teenagers, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
The £27 million seems to be on top of the cost of rebuilding the funicular, and it is still uncertain if HIE has agreed to the additional investment. In consultation with local stakeholders on the future of the region, HIE is currently involved. It seems likely that the funicular will remain closed in 2020-21 for its third winter, and it’s unclear if the announcement means that the funicular will reopen in winter 2021-22. Scotland’s four other commercial ski areas will look at the massive influx of public funds earned by Cairngorm with concern.
When the funicular reopens, it expects to draw thousands of tourists a year, creating benefits for the Badenoch and Strathspey area’s broader economy. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the tourism and hospitality sectors hard. The remaining £4.35 million of support from the Scottish Government and HIE will further develop the snow cannons and upgrade existing facilities for towing, roads, and car parking.
The Cairngorms’ full potential is to make it a destination that people will appreciate all year round, and this substantial investment could not come at a better time. The tourism and hospitality sector are amongst the worst hit by the pandemic. A quarter of the workforce was in the lodging and food services sectors in Badenoch and Strathspey, more than double the Highlands and Islands’ proportion as a whole. Mountain investment will bring considerable economic benefits to the local area and the tourism industry.
The Cairngorms is one of the most famous places in Scotland. This announcement presents a rare opportunity to lay firm foundations for a structured and systematic approach to maintaining this gem for generations to visit the Cairngorms National Park.
As we see increased people staying at home for their holidays, this could be just what the UK needs to entice skiers and snowboarders to head north to Scotland for their ski jaunt. The hopes are that keen ski enthusiasts will no longer need to visit Europe as their preferred ski destination.