Climate change in the Alps may not be all bad.
For many Alpine ski resorts, the prospect of sparse snowfall in a warming world could be a chance to spice up their selling points and come up with new, creative ways to entice tourists.
Think of it as a mountain makeover with an educational edge.
Experts say the challenge is finding new ways for regions that now rely heavily on ski tourism to survive without the white stuff -- in part by doing more to attract people to the peaks year-round.
''The reality is that skiing is not going to be a reliable source of income for many areas,'' said Martin Price, director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College in Britain.
''Especially at the lower altitudes, it's definitely not an industry I would invest in,'' he said.
Tourism activities in the Alps generate about $71 billion in annual turnover and provide up to 12 percent of all jobs in the region, according to a recent report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The report, released late last year, said recent warming in the Alps has been roughly three times the global average and that climate model projections show even greater changes in the coming decades, with less snow at low altitudes, receding glaciers and melting permafrost higher up. The findings were featured during a recent conference in Innsbruck on the future of the Alps.
For weather-weary ski resort operators, there's currently the option of using man-made snow on the slopes, a practice that gained ground in Europe in the 1980s.
But while it helps extend ski seasons and maintain slopes, it requires large amounts of water, costs a lot and doesn't work well in warmer conditions.
Robert Steiger of the University of Innsbruck's Institute of Geography says snowmaking is a suitable strategy for now, but likely will have to be used more intensively in years to come.
That could become very expensive, especially for smaller resorts.
In Austria, $181.5 million was invested in snowmaking equipment for the 2007-08 winter season alone, the Chamber of Commerce said. For next year, that figure is expected to increase to $427.8 million. If needed, nearly 60 percent of Austria's slopes can be covered in artificial snow.
In Switzerland, covering a half-mile of slope with man-made snow requires an investment of roughly $857,730, according to Hans Elsasser, professor of geography at the University of Zurich.
Steiger says it's time to consider whether that cash could be better spent elsewhere.
''The problem right now is that ideas are lacking about how to motivate more people to come up the mountains in the summer,'' he said.
Austria's cable car industry could be particularly hard-hit. The cars, which hoist skiers, snowboarders and sightseers to mountain summits, now make 93 percent of their total turnover in winter.
''From a purely economic perspective, in the medium term there is no alternative to winter sports from our point of view,'' said Erik Wolf, CEO of the Professional Association of Austrian Cable Cars.
Although more people vacation in Austria in summer -- 16 million did last year -- winter is a big draw. Last year's season brought in 14 million people, and most of them hit the slopes, say tourism officials.
Regula Imhof, vice secretary general in the permanent secretariat of the Alpine Convention, an international agreement on the protection and sustainable development of the region, concedes some are reluctant to look beyond the traditional skiing industry for ways to create a sustainable future for the Alps.
''Some people will hold on until it's just not possible anymore,'' Imhof said.
Even so, the days of winter tourism aren't over.
Skiing will simply become more concentrated in certain areas, said Shardul Agrawala, principal economist on climate change at the OECD and editor of the organization's recent Alps report.
And in coming years, not all corners of the Alps will be affected in the same way, Elsasser added. Above around 8,200 feet, it may even snow more than it does now, he said, though that would also increase the avalanche risk.
''One has to maybe think of climate change as less of a threat for tourism but as a challenge. Panic is uncalled for,'' Elsasser said, adding more should be done to inform tourists of their impact on climate change.
Warming isn't the only worry. Experts also warn that the future of tourism in the Alps could be affected by competition from corners of the Balkans and the Caucasus, and they say Europe's aging population will ski less.
So far, they say, studies suggest summer alternatives alone cannot outweigh winter losses, and the Alps will have to compete with places like Scotland or Scandinavia for offseason visitors.
Climate change also risks bedeviling summer tourism by melting glaciers, ice caves and the few remaining venues for summertime skiing, the OECD says.
The trick, Price says, may be to identify a unique selling point -- preferably something that will lure people year-round.
''Lots of tourists like to eat local produce,'' he said. And warmer conditions might prolong the Alpine growing season, perhaps enough to grow more food at higher elevations than in years past, provided there's enough water.
''Climate change isn't all bad,'' he said.
On the Net:
Managing Alpine Future: www.alpinefuture.com
Centre for Mountain Studies: www.cms.uhi.ac.uk
Alpine Convention: www.alpconv.org
Keep Winter Cool: www.keepwintercool.org