CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa may be more associated with sun than snow, but the country has made strides in recent years as a popular destination for professional skiers to compete in the European summer.
The winter months in the country’s interior provide enough snow on the slopes of the Ben Macdhui mountain in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, near the Lesotho border, for international quality competition that is attracting a growing number of Olympic hopefuls.
“In 2017 we had over 80 international skiers from 18 different nations compete in races alongside our local entrants,” president of Snow Sports South Africa, Peter Pilz, told Reuters.
“We have become a popular alternative to New Zealand and South America, where skiers from Europe have traditionally travelled in the European summer.
“South Africa offers a cost-effective option that is on a similar time-zone to Europe, so skiers don’t lose days with travel, and the snow during July and August especially is fantastic.”
The International Ski Federation had a series of events at South Africa’s only Alpine Ski Resort, Tiffindell, last year that allowed competitors to secure points for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Included in the field was Vanessa Vanakorn, known more popularly as British-born violinist Vanessa-Mae, who had hoped to compete at the Games for Thailand but last week ended her bid after a shoulder injury.
“There were also other skiers from Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium and many other nations. It was a fantastic competition,” Pilz said.
It was also a chance for South Africans to compete without the expense of travel to Europe, including Sive Speelman, who is hoping to become the country’s first black Alpine Skier to go to the Olympics this year.
“For both international and local skiers it is a great opportunity to get points before the European season even starts,” Pilz says.
“Our skiers can gain so much by competing with these international racers and you can see the standard is getting better and better.”
But away from the professional snow sports scene, Pilz says skiing and snowboarding in particular have an important role to play in the tourism industry and as a boost to job creation in a country where the unemployment rate is rising and currently stands at 27.7 percent.
“Can you imagine tourists from all over the world having the opportunity for high-quality skiing in Africa, then head for a safari at one of the national parks and after that surf in the sea in Cape Town or Durban,” Pilz says.
“Snow sports can play a bigger role in the tourism economy and we are starting to do that. That is probably where the biggest benefit of having quality skiing in South Africa will be felt in the long-term. People think we don’t have snow here, but we do.”
Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Christian Radnedge