Travel Skiing Austria: The hills are alive...

The first package to Solden cost pounds 15. Things may have changed since then but Austria still offers great value to those looking for village charm, good skiing and exciting nightlife.
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The Independent Culture
Austria has had a formative influence on Britain's skiing traditions. Back in the Twenties in the Arlberg area - the cradle of modern skiing technique, thanks to Hannes Schneider - the British skiing pioneer Sir Arnold Lunn was instrumental in launching the famous Kandahar race. In the following decade another pioneer, Erna Low, began offering ski package holidays to Solden at pounds 15 for a fortnight, including the rail fare.

After the Second World War, and partly because of it, strong links were formed between Austrian resorts and British skiers. In the Sixties, when skiing grew in popularity in Britain, it was Austria that reaped most of the benefit. Right up until the Eighties it remained the most popular destination for British skiers.

But the value of tradition proved to be less significant than that of the Austrian currency: as the schilling went up against the pound, the number of British visitors went down. Austrian resorts were not swift to respond, partly because - despite the popularity of Austria with British skiers - they had a much bigger market close at hand. Even in St Anton, which is well served by British operators, German skiers predominate (they represent 44 per cent of all visitors), with the British far behind them, making up 14.6 per cent.

However, continuing decline - even the Germans have become less reliable customers - finally shook the Austrian resorts into making big investments in their ski areas. And with the schilling currently close to the benchmark level of 20 to the pound, the country has regained a competitive edge. The shift in the British ski market towards traditional destinations, rather than the recent growth areas of North America and Italy, has given Austria reason to be hopeful of a boom in British skiers - an optimism shared by tour operators, some of whom have increased capacity in the country.

But the boom has yet to happen. In a shrinking overall market, Austria has done badly so far this season: to the end of October bookings were down by 11 per cent compared with last year. Its performance may well pick up: many of the resorts are at a relatively low altitude, and therefore not snow-sure, which affects early bookings (and the November snowfalls in the Alps should inspire more confidence among potential customers). Nevertheless, Austria will do well to maintain its market share of one in six British skiers last season.

Does Austria deserve to do better than that? Yes, probably - although it depends on what you expect from a skiing holiday. One big problem has been the most basic requirement: snow. There are exceptions, notably high-altitude resorts such as Ischgl and Obergurgl (whose ski area rises beyond 3000m), those whose skiing is glacier-based (notably Hintertux and Kaprun), and one, St Anton, where location and topography combine to provide a plentiful supply of snow; but the basic rule is that snow- cover is less reliable in Austrian resorts than in many other parts of the Alps.

Unfortunately, British skiers have recently become much less tolerant of the vagaries of the weather, partly because of their exposure to snow-sure resorts in North America, and partly because heavy investment in snow-making machinery elsewhere has guaranteed adequate snow-cover, particularly in France.

With snow-cannons now becoming more plentiful in Austria, conditions are more predictable. But the skiing is fairly predictable, too. However, there are exceptions to this rule, as anyone who has seen the showpiece World Cup race down the Hahnenkamm at Kitzbuhel will know. Nevertheless, Austria's slopes are generally not tough enough to keep the best skiers amused for a whole week, apart from in the Arlberg area. For intermediates, it's a different story: the Arlberg is again good, but so are Ischgl, Obergurgl and Saalbach-Hinterglemm. The latter is also excellent for beginners, as are the lower-altitude resorts of Soll and Schladming, both well equipped with snow-cannons (which can makes a big difference on nursery slopes - provided the weather is cold enough for snow-making).

Although Austria's skiing tradition may have been devalued, it still provides one of the country's great attractions. Many of the old Alpine villages still nestle in valleys, with architecture that reflects their centuries as farming (or occasionally mining) communities. The upside of Austrian conservatism is that purpose-built ski resorts are as rare as snow-cannons used to be, and places such as Alpbach retain their character (it has won awards as Austria's most beautiful village). Even some of the bigger ski centres, such as Schladming and Zell am See, are recognisably medieval market towns, with much of their recent development in keeping with the local architectural style.

A more recent Austrian tradition, and one that sits oddly in a country in which tea, cakes and carpets on tables are the norm elsewhere, is the riotous apres-ski scene.

In the Eighties, Soll even managed to rival Sauze d'Oulx as the premier destination for skiing lager louts. Although Soll has apparently now quietened down, Austrian bar owners are no doubt relieved that the country remains a relatively popular destination for young people, particularly snowboarders.

Night-time chaos, disorder and snowboarder music apart, Austrian ski resorts are generally calm, quiet and well ordered places to stay.

It's traditional, of course, that accommodation should be reliably good, the ski areas properly managed and efficient (Lech has a "resort full" sign posted when ski-pass sales reach a certain level), and the transport links are excellent. There's a lot to be said for tradition.