By Cecile Mantovani and Denis Balibouse
LEYSIN, Switzerland (Reuters) - Deprived of snow by unusually mild weather, Switzerland's world-renowned ski slopes have proven a disappointment to winter sports aficionados and resort managers eager to make the most of the holiday season.
Recent temperatures climbing as high as a record 20.9 Celsius (69.6 Fahrenheit) have severely disrupted operations at many ski resorts, even forcing some to temporarily close.
In Leysin, a resort village in the Vaud Alps, only a handful of skiers could be seen on Wednesday descending a slope where a narrow pass of artificial snow had been laid to create a semblance of winter.
Norah Sweeney, a tourist from Boston, had prepared for a snowy Swiss sojourn, but her hopes quickly melted at the sight of yellowed grass on the slopes.
"We have no snow on the east coast in the U.S. either right now, so all my friends were excited for me to come ski over here and have a lot of snow," she said.
Switzerland is warming at about twice the global average rate due in part to the heat-trapping effect of its mountains, according to a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
MeteoSwiss, the country's federal office for meteorology and climatology, said Switzerland's average temperature of around 7.4 Celsius in 2022 was by far the warmest year since records began in 1864. The average between 1991 and 2020 stood at 5.8 Celsius.
Ski resorts across the country and cable car companies have been struggling, trying to occupy tourists with other forms of leisure.
Brambruesch, a small resort west of Davos, kept vacationers entertained by opening its alpine bike paths on Christmas day to compensate for a delayed ski season.
At the upscale Gstaad resort, only 16 out of 70 ski trails were open on Wednesday.
"We are seeing a decrease in usage of around 35-40% compared to last year," said Armon Cantieni, director of Tele-Leysin, which operates cable cars and other facilities at Leysin. "It's clear that we are worried."
Sophie Ruchet, a resident of the Vaud canton who learned to ski at Leysin, wonders if it's even worth having her children learn to ski.
"It's heartbreaking to see so little snow," she said. "One thought crossed our minds: is it still worth putting our children on the slopes to make them live those joyful moments now when we don't know what the future will bring?"
(Reporting by Cecile Mantovani and Denis Balibouse in Leysin, Emma Farge in Geneva and Noele Illien in Zurich; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)