Interview: Mina Wenmaster
What is the history of Ax-les-Thermes? Can you tell us about its origin?
Ax-les-Thermes is a small town located at the intersection of the valleys. It was traditionally engaged in trade and agriculture. A study of the history of our city suggests that trade in the Middle Ages was more connected with Catalonia (Spain) than with France.
At the same time, during the Middle Ages, sources of thermal waters were discovered. It is said that King Louis IX during the Crusade decided to create a hospital here for the treatment of lepers. That was the purpose of our city – trade, agriculture and a hospital for the treatment of lepers using thermal waters.
In the 1900s, Ax-les-Thermes changed into a tourist city due to the construction of the railway and the advent of hydrotherapy.
And in the winter?
In those days, in winter, hydrotherapy was not very popular. Now, yes. That is why Ax has changed from a small mountain village into a spa and tourist town well known in France. Undoubtedly, it is one of the first and leading spas of the Ariège department. Our tourism experience spans across two centuries. And we know how to serve tourists from various countries.
In 1956, a ski resort opened here. And here we traditionally work in summer and in winter. Tourism is our vocation.
How many people live in the city today?
Our city is very small – only 1300 inhabitants. But together with those who work in the field of tourism, this is already 16,000. We have many hotels, residences, and chalets. Our budget in tourism is comparable to the budgets of Foix or Pamier due to the ski resort and thermal springs.
What are the main economic indicators of the city?
The turnover of the ski resort this year was 9 million euros, 200,000 tourists spent at least one night, 500 additional jobs were created. Approximately 6,000 patients undergo hydrotherapy a year. For each patient, there are 0.7 accompanying people – that is, about 10,200 people who visit the spa. And the average course of hydrotherapy is 18 days.
This is a very important part of the city’s economy.
We can also find all kinds of mountain tourism: walking in the mountains, outdoor activities, mountain biking on the slopes of the ski resort in summer and skiing in winter, rock climbing, and canyoning.
I can say that in Ax-les-Thermes there are three seasons: the ski season from December to April, the thermal season from the beginning of April to the end of October, and mountaineering, which lasts from June to October. September and October are the two main months to visit the thermal springs.
We also have a wellness center. It is called Les bains du Couloubret. Every year the center is visited by 135,000 people. The center is half private and half public. It was built by the municipality but has a private shareholder. The center is managed by Eurothermes.
We also have a casino. It was also built by the municipality, but it has a private shareholder – the Joa Casino company.
Finally, there is a hospital in Axs, which partially serves as a nursing home. Hospital patients undergo a course of functional rehabilitation. About sixty people can be in the hospital at the same time – they come here from all of Ariege (France). The course of therapy is aimed at patients who have been diagnosed with polytraumatology. This is a real rehabilitation center with a swimming pool, the distinguishing feature of which is that it is with thermal water.
What is the composition of the thermal water?
It is rich in hydrogen sulfide. This is not the same as the water in Caldea in Andorra.
It is also the hottest water in the Pyrenees, its temperature is 76 degrees. This is a very important characteristic in terms of anti-bacterial properties. This water can burn. During the time of King San Louis and up to the end of the last century, this water was used to scald pigs and also to disinfect pig farms. Finally, they cooked soup in this water or used it to make coffee – during boiling the unpleasant smell disappears.
And one more important aspect – the water is completely natural. It is strictly forbidden to add anything to thermal water – this is how it differs from other resorts. This water is 100% healing. It has zero bacteria. So we are very lucky to have this natural source.
The composition of our water has not changed for many years – since the Bronze Age! This is a source that must be protected, it can not be used just as it is. And you should always remember that water is a limited resource. Therefore, even though our water is hot, we cannot use it to heat buildings.
In the area of Hospitalet, there are also sources with a similar composition of water. The city has a well, which is owned by the municipality. There is a plan to build a mineral water bottling plant there. But this water is “young” – it appeared only 5 years ago.
Our water is 8000 years old, it is not the same. However, by its properties, this “young” water is suitable even for babies.
Going back to the ski resort again, are there many ski slopes?
About 75 km. This, of course, is less than in Grandvalira in Andorra, but there are much fewer blue tracks. There are red and mostly black tracks.
In fact, we have three ski areas: the first is the concentration of not very difficult ski slopes, the second is the zone for children (at the very bottom and at the very top). And finally, there is a zone for freeriders.
Do you host any competitions?
Internationally, no. Starting this summer, we have a Maxiavalanche stage – this is a mountain biking competition.
How do you plan to improve the ski resort?
We are constantly working to improve the quality of the ski slopes. We have done some reconstruction, and now our resort is more adapted for families with children. Now we are equipping the top of the station. But we do not want to greatly expand our resort. We want to preserve the charm of a small ski village, which is located at an altitude of 750 m.
What are the statistics of city attendance by tourists?
Our tourists are mostly French from Toulouse and Bordeaux and the surrounding area. There are also foreign tourists – British, Spaniards …
We want to pay more attention to international tourism. But for this, we need to keep up with the hotel business. We need new hotels with at least 4 stars. We have land and there are interested investors.
Are they French or foreign investors?
There are French investors, but we continue to search for foreign investors.
We have just bought a mansion with a large plot of land. And we want to make a modern hotel on its base. There are other plots of land, but we want to stay within the boundaries of our city.
What is the investment budget of your city?
For the ski station, we spend 11 million euros. We are one of the few stations in the Pyrenees that maintains a relative balance between profit and investment.
As for the real estate market, what are the prices for housing?
In the city center, a square meter of housing costs 3,000 euros. However, the municipality is trying to build affordable housing for the population. The problem with Ax-les-Thermes is that most of the houses here are meant to be leased to tourists. Thus, it is difficult for people to get ownership. Therefore, as a result, people are forced to live 30 km from the city.
Our readers often ask: What can I see around Andorra? What else could you recommend?
There are many caves in our area, there is even an underground river Mas-d’Azil – however, it is located further than Foix.
It is also worth attending our cultural events. In April, we hold a film festival devoted to mountain sports. It is called “Expno”.
Every second year in May we hold an accordion festival.
During the summer, a festival of street performances takes place. It is special because it starts in the mountains and gradually descends into the city. The festival has been held for 20 years and is constantly evolving.
We widely celebrate the holidays of neighboring countries – Spain and Italy. We have a gastronomic festival in the fall. In winter we have a lot of concerts of modern music, they are held on weekends.
Do you have joint programs with Andorra?
We regularly meet with the Minister of Agriculture of Andorra, Silvia Calvo, who attends our festival of flavors. We are discussing energy issues with the Andorran government. And, of course, we cooperate in the field of ski tourism.
We constantly communicate with colleagues working in Pas de la Casa.
The area of cooperation is the safety of the ski resorts. We exchange experience, knowledge, and sometimes details about the lifts. But we do not have joint programs with the government of Andorra.
Do you have the opportunity to advertise the city in terms of tourism in Andorra?
Yes, it makes sense for us. But to communicate with Andorra is difficult.
Are there any joint projects to develop logistics between Andorra and Ax-les-Thermes?
We are completely open to this. We are discussing this issue with the shareholders of Grandvalira, who own Pas de la Casa. The idea is to build a new elevator from the village of Meren directly to Andorra.
A bus service already exists. The bus between Pas de la Casa and Ax-les-Termes runs every day. The duty-free trade of Andorra is one of the additional offers for attracting tourists.