IT was a “go to” place for many as lockdown lifted, with crowds drawn to the Cairngorms for the fresh mountain air, unspoiled scenery and open space.

Now a group of outdoor organisations says the popularity of the area around Cairngorm ski centre in the wake of lockdown shows there is no need for expensive repairs to be made to its broken funicular railway.

The group, comprising The Cairngorms Campaign, North East Mountain Trust, Ramblers Scotland and Scottish Wild Land Group, has also called for ski-centre owner Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to explore fresh options for the area before spending up to £15 million on carrying out repairs.

It has urged HIE to make its proposals for the ski centre and railway clear before the Scottish Government makes any decision on funding them.

And it has called for a full examination of how the area may be developed, and suggested it should focus on becoming a sustainable skiing operation alongside summer activities compatible with an environmentally sensitive high mountain environment.

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Dave Windle of North East Mountain Trust, representing the group, said: “Skiers have been deserting the mountain since well before the closure of the funicular. It’s now clear that the funicular is not even needed to attract summer visitors given the number of tourists flocking to the area this summer when it wasn’t working.

“HIE’s plans must get things right this time or more public money will be wasted, and downhill skiers will continue to go elsewhere.”

The group is “very concerned about the lack of transparency and public accountability” regarding decisions about the future of Cairngorm Mountain ski centre.

It added that it believes it is crucial that any future plans should evaluate two scenarios – one with and one without the funicular railway – to ensure full value for public funds which are being invested in the area.

The £26m funicular railway closed in 2018 after developing structural faults. Within months, HIE, which owns the mountain, stepped in to take over the running of the snowsports centre and funicular after the collapse of CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, which had been given a 25-year lease to run the operation.

However, the costs of repairing the railway, along with mounting concerns over the lack of development of the ski area, has prompted groups to question whether it should be simply scrapped. Falling skier numbers also suggest the Cairngorm ski area, once the jewel in the crown of the sport in Scotland, was drifting behind rivals.

Between 2004 and 2013, average annual skier days were 78,000 or 41 per cent of the total Scottish market. However, from 2014-18, numbers fell to 60,000, or 32% market share.

Rural Economy Minister Fergus Ewing recently confirmed that a decision on the repair of the funicular is due soon, and the business case will be published shortly.

However, the group says it is particularly concerned that a decision to repair the funicular will be made by the Government without any opportunity for parliamentary or public scrutiny of the financial details.

Windle continued: “It will be totally unacceptable if the Government takes a decision before allowing MSPs and the public to consider the rational for, and the costs of, the case presented by HIE.

“ Of particular concern is the fact that future costs will not be limited to the £10-£15m estimate for the repair of the funicular but will need to include new ski uplift as well, probably a hig- speed chair lift, whether or not the funicular is repaired.

“In addition, there is a large backlog of maintenance of the infrastructure, including the Day Lodge and the Ptarmigan buildings.

“On top of that, all previous operators have lost money. Things need to be different this time, which is why HIE and the Government need to be open and transparent. Local skiing enthusiasts have better ideas on how to get skiers back to Cairngorm.“

He added: “The business case for supporting the repair of funicular must be made public now before a decision is taken.

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“Only in this way can people and businesses on Speyside, skiers and those who are concerned about the mountain be assured that repair of the funicular is the best option and that public money wouldn’t be better spent on a different model or on supporting struggling businesses elsewhere on Speyside.”

HIE said it had shared the business case with the Scottish Government, and is close to finalising it. “Once this is done, we will publish as much detail we can, including costs,” said a spokesman.

“This is a complex and thorough technical exercise that includes examining in detail the full range of options for the funicular: removal, replacement, or reinstatement.”

HIE added that previous consultation reports had “concluded unequivocally that the funicular is a unique asset at Cairngorm, with particular appeal to non-skiing visitors.”