Travel: What's New in France?

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The Independent Culture
SEVERAL OF the operators are offering new resorts in France this year, although much of the emphasis is on consolidating their existing ones and increasing the accommodation available. The most interesting expansion is Thomson's move into Megeve, an upmarket resort with an air of exclusivity. Thomson's offer of pounds 319 for a week's half-board will doubtless dent this pricey reputation.

Both Crystal and Neilson are offering Les Menuires for the first time; and Crystal is also offering holidays in Pra Loup, in the southern Alps, an area whose popularity seems to have increased in part because of the Sunday flights into Turin, which have shortened the transfer time and avoided some of the Saturday airport rush.

Several companies have grasped the importance of the shortest possible transfer times, and are using airports other than Geneva and Lyon to get to the French resorts. Airtours is using Grenoble for those going to Les Deux Alpes, which means a journey time of about 40 minutes to the resort. The company is also introducing flexible travel arrangements, allowing people from the same group to set out from different UK airports. Crystal is operating its regional flights from East Midlands, Cardiff and Newcastle into Chambery, a relatively pleasant and far less congested alternative to Geneva, which means that transfer times into some of the Tarentaise resorts have been cut by an hour. Crystal also has a creche at Chambery airport - this is not so that you can leave the children at the airport for a week, but it does help to take the strain during the wait for the flight to leave.

First Choice is sticking with Lyon, but is extending the length of a week's holiday by introducing Friday night flights there from Gatwick. This allows for a full day's skiing on the Saturday, as well as on the final Friday, before a late flight back. First Choice still leaves on Saturday from the regional airports, although it is offering discounts on these departures. A new schemes for attracting the family market includes a Ski Nippers Club which, as well as providing child care, offers free use of ski clothing. Other child-oriented innovations include Powder Byrne's new free creche in Courchevel. Stanford Ski, which only operates now in Megeve, is extending its "kids' ski free" programme to include Easter, not just Christmas and the first three weeks of January.

The small companies, aware that they can't compete as far as pricing is concerned, are concentrating on providing a more flexible service, personal knowledge of a small number of resorts, and distinguished accommodation aimed at making their clients want to return. Stanford Travel is offering reductions in its Christmas and late season prices; Le Ski is expanding into La Tania in Les Trois Vallees; and Bigfoot Travel, which concentrates on Chamonix, has set up a property company to help the smitten to find their own accommodation.

Meanwhile, Airtours is planning to bring day-trippers in. One trip will go to Chamonix from Manchester and the other from Gatwick.

There is new competition this year in the ski-drive market with the expansion of Ski Independence, which until now has only operated in North America, into the French market, with a brochure called Ski Drive France. Their prices are based on the cost of the Channel crossing, which could be by ferry or Le Shuttle, and self-catering accommodation in an apartment in one of their 17 Alpine resorts. Their lowest price is pounds 36 per person, which might give Erna Low, the leaders in the French ski-drive market, a run for its money.

Erna Low's most interesting new development is the launch of its Adaptive Skiing programme, designed for disabled people who can already ski. It offers holidays in La Plagne, Tignes and Avoriaz: the resorts have been chosen to provide easy access to the slopes and the accommodation, co- operative lift operators, and the willingness of ski schools to provide suitable tuition.

Finally, there is one feature that most of the brochures have in common - the paragraph asking, "What are you doing for the millennium?" So far, most haven't released their prices, but special brochures will be available soon, and at least one company claims that bookings are already very high.

Cathy Packe