Snow plan

“Snow Plan” is much quoted expression in tourism literature, particularly in academic literature. What is it about?

The onslaught of tourism in mountain regions

While there was a French policy of mountain development, supported by Maurice Michaud (1905-1973), senior civil engineer, the real meaning of its name, “Snow Plan”, is questionable. Indeed, while the plan was real, it dates to 1970 (Knafou, 1978: p. 48-49), several years after works began in La Plagne (1962) or other resorts such as Tignes, Vars, Avoriaz, Les Arcs, Isola (2000) or Val Thorens appeared.

The “Snow Plan” is in fact a late, paroxysmal form of an approach that would soften from the following year. There were 135,000 beds in winter sports resorts in January 1970, two-thirds of which created during the French Fifth Plan, Economic and Social Development Plan (1966-1970). The aim of the “Snow Plan” was to create 365,000 beds during the sixth and seventh plans (1971-1975 and 1976-1980).

However, as early as the following winter (1970-1971), the growth of winter sports stalled and a certain disenchantment emerged: developers could no longer sell their property, the press denounced the myth of “white gold”, the unbridled urbanisation of the mountains, environmental damage, and the unaffordable cost of stays.

The name of this plan was therefore coined a posteriori and significantly changed direction with this first crisis. As we can see, the expression “Snow Plan” is a source of confusion, and the idea that the “Vallouise speech” of August 1977, delivered by President Giscard d’Estaing (1926-2020), put an end to it needs to be put in perspective. By calling this phase in the development of mountain regions (from the early 1960s to 1977) a “Snow Plan”, we are therefore taking a shortcut of sorts.

Disparate initiatives at first

Because, unlike “Mission Racine” (set up to develop a stretch of the coast in the former Languedoc-Roussillon region) and the MIACA (“Inter-ministerial Mission for the Development of the Aquitaine Coast”), this programme was not initiated by the DATAR (French Delegation for territorial planning and regional action). It was more an intention than a real planning operation (George-Marcelpoil and François, 2012).

The initiative started with developers looking for bold and seemingly lucrative operations and local authorities wishing to develop tourism to counter the demographic decline and agricultural crisis of the mountain regions, at a time when both the French economy and the tourism sector were experiencing spectacular growth. Agreements between the two parties were signed in 1961 for La Plagne, Les Arcs, Flaine and Les Menuires, 1962 for Avoriaz, 1966 for Superdévoluy and 1967 for Le Corbier. The state acted as an intermediary, in particular with the expropriation procedure, given the public utility nature, though questionable, of these projects.

In 1964, the Commission interministérielle pour l’aménagement touristique de la montagne (French Interministerial Commission for the Tourism Development of Mountain Regions or CIAM) was created to coordinate the state’s action. It set up a Service d’étude et d’aménagement touristique de la montagne (Research and Development Department for Mountain Tourism or SEATM), located in Chambéry and then at Challes-les-Eaux Airport, which was composed of a handful of senior public officers, headed by Maurice Michaud.

SEATM was behind the creation of about twenty resorts, most of them ex nihilo. Initially, these were prestigious resorts, designed to bring in foreign currencies from rich foreign skiers. These integrated resorts, referred to as “third generation”, differed from existing ones in that they were located at altitudes of 2,000 metres or more (Val Thorens sits at an altitude of 2,300 metres), and were built entirely by one developer-concessionaire, making them more financially or architecturally coherent.

Their resemblance to Courchevel, a resort from the previous generation, considered an “empirical step” to integrated resorts, is nonetheless striking (Knafou, 1978: p.21). In 1946, the Conseil général de Savoie (Department Council of Savoie), on the advice of Maurice Michaud, took on the construction of a new high-altitude resort (1,850 metres) whose other novel feature derives from the fact that it was designed and built by chief architect Laurent Chappis (1915-2013), who was responsible for the remarkable landscape unit of the Courchevel resort. Chappis is also considered to have invented the “grenouillère”, the area where the pistes converge, considered a central point for learning to ski and accessing the pistes, a feature generally retained in third-generation resorts.

The latter are far from identical, due in particular to the nature of their developers (public, associative or private) and the variable extent of state aid, predominantly through the construction of extremely expensive access roads. The most impressive of these connects the village of Isola (800 metres) to the Isola 2000 resort: over 17 km of steeply climbing road, following the course of gorges and avalanche corridors, which have had to be secured at various points in time (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. The Isola 2000 resort access road (© J.-Ch.Gay, 2020)

In the Pyrenees, increasingly unpopular among non-regional clients (Hagimont, 2018), local authorities, departments, municipalities and Syndicats intercommunaux à vocation multiple (Multi-purpose inter-municipal bodies or SIVOMs) played a greater role in the development of ski than they did in the Alps. SEATM, whose Pyrenean branch was located in Toulouse, only turned their attention to this mountain range at the end of the 1960s, offering assistance to major resorts and creating new, prestigious ones.

However, the winter crisis of 1970-1971 and the first oil crisis stopped this Pyrenean “Snow Plan” and the high-altitude urbanisation projects in their tracks. For this Alpine model to flourish, it would have required a favourable economic environment and the arrival of major national developers (Chadefaud and Dalla-Rosa, 1978).

While we consider the building of high-altitude ski resorts to be a land-use planning operation, this one was clearly a one-off and incomplete. Indeed, it was not until the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville that a motorway was built up to Albertville (the A430) along with an express road extending it to Moutiers, even though several third-generation resorts were clustered in the Tarentaise valley (La Plagne, Les Arcs, Tignes, Val Thorens and Les Ménuires). Similarly, it was not until this sporting event that the Bourg-Saint-Maurice train station was modernised and connected to the high-speed TGV train network, through the electrification of the line.

For Christmas 1976, a new resort in the Tarentaise valley, Valmorel, opened its doors. It seemed to constitute a response to the increasingly strong criticism that integrated resorts faced (see above). Its altitude (between 1,300 and 1,400 m) is conducive to both winter and summer tourism. In terms of architecture, its “neo-Savoyard” style hamlets, made of small low buildings, was a departure from integrated resorts.

This illusory style, built using “natural” materials, was now in step with the times. There was no longer any question of building large new resorts, especially above 1,400 m in the Pyrenees and 1,600 m in the Alps, as the “Vallouise speech” would specify in 1977. The Mountain Law of 1985 prohibited building on high-altitude or lake-side virgin sites. Tourism operations now had to take the form of “hamlets integrated into the environment” or Unités touristique nouvelle (New tourist units or UTNs) in sync with existing buildings.

Jean-Christophe GAY


  • Chadefaud Michel et Dalla-Rosa Gilbert, 1978, «La neige des Pyrénées occidentales: enjeu et stratégies des collectivités locales», Revue géographique des Pyrénées et du Sud-Ouest. n° 4, p. 477-515.
  • Hagimont Steve, 2018, «Aménager et exploiter la montagne sportive hivernale. La Société des chemins de fer et hôtels de montagne aux Pyrénées (1911-1982)», Entreprises et Histoires. vol. 4, n° 24, p. 24-46, en ligne.
  • Knafou Rémy, 1978, Les Stations intégrées de sports d’hiver des Alpes françaises. Paris, Masson.
  • George-Marcelpoil Emmanuelle et François Hugues, 2012, «De la construction à la gestion des stations», Revue de Géographie Alpine. n° 3, en ligne.
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  • Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le Tourisme en France 2, approche régionale, Londres, ISTE, 221 p.