Val d’Isère

Val d’Isère - to Know Its Future Is to Understand Its Past

10th April 2024

To lead among elite mountain sports destinations, innovation is critical. As Val d’Isère celebrates another successful season and we enjoy more fine April skiing here, we contemplate how this illustrious resort has continued to push its own boundaries to become a leader in the field.

Six years before Val d’Isère had its first ski lift, Jean Perquelin, a journalist at the ‘Petit Dauphinois’, a regional newspaper in France wrote, "This village will soon become one of the most frequented ski centres thanks to its incomparable site and its huge snow fields.”

It was 1932. A time before any ski lifts existed in France. No marked pistes. No organisational bodies. No piste groomers. They were invented 17 years later. Very few hotels. A few British visitors (of course) and a mixed bag of brave mainland Europeans who took the journey up to 1850m to try this strange new pastime their connections had spoken of.

In the 50 years prior to this, the local population of Val d’Isère had watched their basic form of movement around the mountains turn into something that was a mix between farcical and visionary, depending on who they were watching at the time. A handful saw the future.

“It is a resort of pure sport whose future is turned towards snow,” envisioned Perqulin. Of course, she wasn’t the only one who dreamed.

Arguably the first dreamer was an audacious industrialist from Paris called Jacques Mouflier who had set off in the early spring of 1929 to search for Val d’Isère. The whispers had reached him of a special village in a hidden valley, surrounded by majestic peaks. A true sight to behold. He had seen some maps and that was enough to prompt his adventure.

A journey this deep at that time of the year wasn’t for the faint of heart. Avalanches from warming snowpacks. Mudslides from growing groundwater. The path was dangerous. Only his wanderlust, a desire that still to this day connects all those who visit Val d’Isère, pushed him on.

Up and down paths suitable for no more than humans and donkeys, plodding through snow armed with little more than climbing skins on his skis, he eventually laid eyes on the village.

After falling for its intoxicating mix of nature, space and tranquillity, and fuelled by the potential to combine all this with alpine sport, he tried and failed to convince the then mayor Nicolas Bazile to see a possible future. Bazile thought it impossible due to Val d’Isère’s harsh climate and remote location, two aspects which ironically are now two of Val d’Isère’s strongest accolades almost 100 years later.

At this time, in 1929, the village had no electricity or phone lines and water came from the mountain streams. Yet over the next few years, Mouflier would convince Bazile of a possible future and in the coming decades the resort would take shape. He’s famed for telling Bazile, “Your fortune is your altitude.” He also made it his own, as many years on he would become the owner of ‘Val d'Isère Téléphérique’ the ski lift operating company.

Public infrastructure investment quickly created power and water supply as well as a post office, hotels and a tourist office. The groundwork for a thriving alpine destination was being laid.

As the buzz grew and the notoriety given by those like journalist Perquelin helped it on, the resort even tested the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity. In 1937 two French government ministers found themselves stranded in Val d’Isère in a fierce storm in the same year the iconic Iseran pass was opened. This pass was a pivotal development as it connected the Tarentaise Valley to the Maurienne Valley. The news of the stranded ministers further solidified Val d'Isère's reputation as a household name in France and beyond.

Good things come to those who wait

Bazile’s initial objections; Val d’Isère’s remoteness and harsh climate, are now fundamental reasons why people return to Val d’Isère time and time again. Even now, as we write this in early April, the front de neige boasts a strong snowpack, the Solaise peak looks like a sunny day in February. Beautifully manicured pistes, no bare spots, glorious sun against a crisp chill. Speaking of waiting… this year also saw the welcome return of the infamous Tunnel slope, a challenging, heavily mogulled, underground black run which has been closed for 15 years.

Next week more snow arrives here at the top, with temperatures set to plummet down to -8C.
If the ski resorts within an hour of Geneva saw such weather during the Easter Holidays, the masses would descend. Can you blame them? If you lived nearby you’d probably feel the itch too. But the thing is, the nearest city to the Portes du Soleil’s Les Gets is Geneva with a population of 500,000. The nearest city to the Espace Killy’s Val d’Isère? Chambery. Population of 60,000. And Chambery is more of a historic mountain town anyway.

So day trippers aren’t really an issue. Once someone is in Val d’Isère, permanently, semi-permanently or even if just for a week, it seems that friendships and common acquaintances flourish better here than elsewhere. It’s amazing what great snow and a variety of mountains can do, and Val d’sere has both with four interconnected sectors, each catering to skiers of varying abilities and preferences.

La Daille, located at the easternmost point, offers gentle slopes for beginners and challenging red runs for seasoned skiers, serving as a gateway to the Tignes sector. Bellevarde boasts diverse slopes, including the iconic Bellevarde piste, renowned for prestigious ski competitions.

The Solaise and the Iseran pass provide panoramic views of the Val d'Isère valley, offering a blend of alpine splendour and skiing opportunities. Skiing up at the top of the Solaise is like being in another world, created purely for the sport. Then there’s also the Glacier du Pisaillas sector, with elevations reaching 3428 meters, offering high-altitude descents and serene forested trails overlooking the village of Fronet.

Raw, harsh, young, unfinished

This was how Val d’Isère felt 100 years ago. Yet arguably you can still use these words to describe it today. Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the team pushing things forward.

The torch that was lit by Bazile and Moufliers is now carried by a dedicated team of 292 individuals. Ski lift operators, mechanics, inspectors, electricians, bus drivers, and even its own IT department to ensure wifi is available at key points on and off the slopes. They all converge to ensure visitors experience the epitome of hospitality and enjoyment in both the ski area and the village.

And it works. Val d’Isère now stands as a beacon of sustainable tourism and continual regeneration. It achieved a significant milestone in 2016 by becoming the largest linked ski area to obtain the Green Globe label. This dedication to environmental stewardship extends to its partnership with Tignes, resulting in the prestigious Flocon Vert label awarded in 2022 by the Mountain Riders association. There are around 250 ski resorts in France and only the top 10% boast this accolade.

Multiple FIS Alpine World Ski Championships and countless other competitions all heading to a village that has grown down the valley.

Central to Val d'Isère's sustainability initiatives is the adoption of electric transportation. The introduction of two electric shuttles in 2022 marked the inception of a fleet renewal program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by a staggering 90%. With an eye toward achieving Net Zero Carbon status by 2030, this initiative aligns seamlessly with the overarching goals of Compagnie des Alpes, Val d'Isère Téléphériques' parent company.

Looking ahead, the winter of 2023-2024 heralds the integration of four additional electric shuttles, with plans for a total fleet of 15 by 2025. Operated by Valbus, a subsidiary of Val d'Isère Téléphériques, these shuttles serve as lifelines connecting residents, workers, and visitors throughout the village and its hamlets, facilitating approximately 3 million journeys over 365,000 kilometres in a single winter season.

Beyond its environmental endeavours, Val d'Isère thrives as a hub of real estate activity, particularly in the realm of new-build and renovated properties. Fueled by a persistent imbalance between supply and demand, the market for well-located apartments and chalets remains robust, attracting a diverse array of French, British, and international buyers. The allure of modern amenities coupled with the promise of lucrative rental returns positions Val d'Isère as a prime destination for both investors and holidaymakers alike.

Property in Val d’Isère

As the resort continues to evolve, balancing tradition with innovation, it remains steadfast in its commitment to sustainability and excellence. Redevelopment is a huge part of this. Whilst not as big as the original plans, the redevelopment of part of the ‘Le Coin’ area is still substantial and is a nod to the scale and heights that both public and private investment want to take the resort. Now around 10,000 sqm it will feature a new 5* hotel, private residences and services.

Contained by nature, surrounded by mountains, protected parkland and avalanche zones, the property market in Val d’Isère is justifiably potent. The confluence of consistent demand and a dearth of supply, fuelled by a diverse array of buyers hailing from France, Britain, and beyond, has positioned Val d'Isère as one of the select few French resorts where a 'waiting list' for specific property types exists.

This demand has propelled new-build and recently renovated chalets and apartments - when available - to prominence within the market. The same dynamic extends to the resale market, although cost implications can arise with properties of a certain age. A premium is therefore added to those that are new.

Well-finished chalets and apartments equipped with après-ski facilities cater to the burgeoning influx of international tourists, doubling them as lucrative rental investments. Owners here are presented with a dual opportunity: the personal enjoyment of family holidays intertwined with the potential for a steady stream of rental income and an asset that is afforded strong capital protection compared to other brick-and-mortar options.

Owning a home here is just for the lucky few, but if you do come to own one yourself, make sure you take time to appreciate where the village has come from. In doing so, you may also be able to help it forward.


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