Romania’s Ski Resort Dreams

Not for the first time a Romanian Minister of Tourism has publicly stated that he (in this case the incumbent is Mircea Dobre) wants to see a major ski resort built in the Carpathian Mountains. This time — for reasons we will outline below — he might just be on to something. However, as in just about every case of this kind to go before, there are huge caveats, and I will believe it when I see it. Or rather, when I can ski on it.

Firstly, an overview of the current state of Romania’s skiing infrastructure.

There are tens of ski resorts across the country (the website in fact lists 93). Most are little more than one-horse affairs with just a single drag lift, or — in some cases — a chair lift. In a few places, there are gondolas built at great cost during a boom in such enterprises under the watch of former Tourism Minister Elena Udrea (2008–2012).

The criteria for building these micro-resorts was almost exclusively political, however, and rarely involved anything resembling joined-up thinking. Millions of euros (often European Union PHARE money intended for the regeneration of rundown, former industrial areas and/or Romania’s deprived regions) was wasted on these projects, which looked impressive when opened (always with great fanfare) but now stand as examples of folly.

The gondola at Vidra

Many have become white elephants, built in unsuitable or inaccessible locations, such as the exposed chairlift at Ranca (where high winds make preserving snow an issue) or the gondola at Vidra where, beyond a handful of pensions, there is no accommodation whatsoever within 50km. What’s more, access to Vidra is via a slow, tortuous road: it takes almost an hour to cover the 33km from the nearest village, Voineasa, and that in good weather.

Romania’s biggest ski resorts remain, as they have for the past 40 years, Poiana Brasov and Sinaia.

Poiana Brasov was one beneficiary of the PHARE programme where money was spent well, although even here there are problems, most notably the long lift queues at peak times. Poiana Brasov also suffers from poor snow cover: although there was investment in snow-making equipment it does not appear to be of the highest calibre. Less than perfect grooming and the sheer number of people using the same slopes also means that snow disappears faster than it should.

Of Sinaia I have written in the past, and seldom have I done so in a complementary manner. Sinaia is not a single resort. It is two: one built on top of another. As such, two different companies operate the lifts, and while it is just about possible to ski most of the slopes with just one lift pass, most people choose the more convenient gondola/Valea Soarelui lift pass, which means queues at those lifts on which it can be used are long.

That’s when the gondola is open.

The tree line at Sinaia is at around 1550 metres. Above that is some of the most bleak, exposed terrain in all of Romania. Susceptible to high winds the gondola which serves the ski area at 2000 metres was this past season closed almost as many days as it was open.

The wind also has an impact on snow cover: fresh snow, no matter how deep, can be blown away in hours if not quickly bashed and pisted.

Guaranteeing decent snow cover is in fact one of the biggest problems Romania’s ski resorts face. Despite often being bitterly cold, Romanian winters are relatively dry: it simply does not snow all that much. (Only September sees less precipitation than December, January, February and March. For the record, May and June are historically Romania’s wettest months).

Snow making technology has improved greatly over the past five years as low-altitude resorts across Europe, their very existence threatened by global warming, have turned to the three companies which dominate the market — TechnoAlpin, Demaclenko and SUFAG — for help.

Italian resorts have led the way and some, such as Temu and Ponte di Legno/Tonale (where I skied in 2016) are now entirely covered — when needed — by artificial snow. (You can read more about the business and technology of snow making here).

Passo del Tonale. Real snow this time

Romania’s latest wheeze to conquer the skiing world involves the construction of a mega-resort with more than 150km of pistes across the Fagaras Mountains. The resort villages would be Arefu, Cicanesti and Albestii de Arges on the southern side, and Cartisoara on the northern side.

Mircea Dobre wants the entire resort to be state-funded, as he sees the project as a matter of ‘national interest’. It was included in Romania’s latest ‘Tourism Master Plan’, approved by the government at its last meeting before the summer recess.

Building a ski resort in the Fagaras Mountains is not a new idea. As long ago as 1968 a project was drawn up to just that. It never happened.

However, even back then somebody was on the right track. If there is a right place in which to build a large scale ski resort in Romania then this is it. These are the highest mountains in Romania, and natural snow can usually be guaranteed from the end of November to the the end of April. Access from either the north or south is very good. Albestii de Arges is no more than two hours from Bucharest via the A1 motorway, while Cartisoara is just under an hour from Sibiu.

There are a number of potential problems however.

Firstly, the scale of the project is grandiose beyond belief (almost literally). The distance (as the crow flies) from Albestii de Arges to Cartisoara (the proposed reach of the ski area, or at least access lifts) is more than 40km. At its furthest extent (from Courchevel 1650 to Orelle) the Three Valleys in France (the world’s largest ski area) stretches less than half that distance.

Secondly, there is the cost. While no ski resort can be built on the cheap, the steep terrain of the Fagaras Mountains could make the whole project economically unviable (if, of course, economics has anything to do with it: if this is a vanity project then it will not).

Thirdly, there are huge environmental issues. Trees would need to be felled, streams re-routed, ecosystems disturbed.

As the problems with wind at Sinaia demonstrate, building a ski resort is not simply a question of installing a lift. They have to be the right type of lifts: for the ride up to Sinaia 2000, a gondola was not the correct option (at least not the type of gondola installed).

While it depends on a number of factors, primarily wind direction, gondolas are far more prone to closure due to high winds than chair lifts. Gondolas can, however, shift far more people than chair lifts, which is why resorts like them. Cable cars —particularly large, modern ones — are even less prone to closure than chair lifts, but are far less efficient when it comes to moving large numbers of people uphill.

Hybrid gondola/cable cars, which offer the capacity of gondolas with the stability of cable cars have recently begun appearing in a number of European resorts, usually at the foot of the mountain in order to get as many people as possible from resort to ski area as quickly as possible. Ischgl has two, while Mayrhofen — once notorious for its queues — last season installed a gondola on the Penken mountain which can accommodate 24 people in each pod. The cost of the new Penkenbahn was close to €50 million.

The new Penkenbahn. A gondola as big as a cable car

Comparisons with Austria, not least the cost of cable cars and gondolas, are not ridiculous. For a start, we should remember that before developing their potential for skiing, most of today’s largest Austrian resorts were little more than pastoral villages — and some of them very poor.

Not unlike Romania’s villages.

Austria has twice had to catch up with the rest of the Alpine nations. Firstly in the 1960s (it was late to the downhill skiing party: until then cross-country was Austria’s preferred method of enjoying the snow), and then in the 1990s after its mainly small resorts had been left behind by the development of huge, interconnected skiing areas in France and Switzerland.

Ischgl, today one of the world’s biggest ski areas, did not install its first lift until 1963. Even then there were problems: the lift crashed before going into operation and the village, which still owns a majority stake in the company that operates the lifts, faced serious financial issues for much of its first decade as a ski resort.

Besides sound management and persistence there are two important factors which have ensured that Ischgl has thrived (and the same goes for just about every other Austrian village-turned-ski resort):

  1. All profits are reinvested and infrastructure continually updated and extended.
  2. Neighbouring villages/resorts cooperate with each other, combining to offer more skiing on one lift pass and free buses between villages.

When you remember that Sinaia cannot offer a single lift pass to cover all of its lifts, let alone offer free skiing in another, the scale of the problem becomes increasingly apparent.

If the Romanian state does build a mega ski resort (and I would politely suggest that it should not: private enterprise should be nudged into doing it) then the Fagaras Mountains are the correct place to build it. Beyond that, I do not see what this project has going for it.

Expect it, alas, to be very quickly forgotten.