SKIING - ITALY: Italian slopes are on the up

The rise of the lira resulted in the fall in demand predicted for Austria's great rival. But skiing in Italy is now back up to speed

Ask a tour operator about skiing in Italy, and the chances are that the first thing he'll want to discuss - before pistes and ski infrastructure, hotels and restaurants - is the value of the lira. By common consent among those in the business it was the relative weakness of its currency that attracted British skiers to Italy from the mid-1990s onwards, increasing its market-share to the point where it almost displaced Austria as the second most popular destination.

Although some believed that those skiers' satisfaction with Italian resorts would make demand robust enough to survive an appreciation in the value of the lira, the general view this time last year was that Italy would suffer when its currency was locked in to the Euro at the beginning of 1999, preventing it from fluctuating (ie falling) against the franc and the Austrian schilling. And so it proved: the major tour operators saw a decline of about 10 per cent in sales of ski holidays in Italy for the 1998/9 season, just as Adrian Harwood, marketing director for First Choice, had predicted on these pages last November. From being neck-and- neck in 1997/8, Austria and Italy went their separate ways, the latter ending the season four percentage points behind its rival in their respective shares of the total UK tour operators' market.

Early signs suggested that the trend would continue this season. Thomson cut back on its capacity to Italy because, as Andrew Peters, the company's managing director for ski, mountains and lakes, told me, "we didn't expect it to be one of the shining stars this season".

But he has been agreeably surprised by sales so far. "We were understandably pessimistic, because of the value of the lira," he said (although it is now down to around 3,000 to the pound, the lira has fallen no faster than the other Euro currencies to which it is linked).

"However, Italy has performed better than we expected: sales are down by about 15 per cent, but that is in line with what we estimate to be the decline of the overall market."

If Italy is seeing a relative recovery, that is arguably no more than it deserves. Last year, Adrian Harwood was critical of the Italian resorts for not putting more money into their infrastructure: "You don't mind paying a little more if there is investment going back into the resort, but Italy is lagging behind in that respect," he said then.

Early this autumn, however, the overall boss of both the Crystal and Thomson brands, Andy Perrin, was full of praise for Italy's efforts to get its skiing up to speed: new high-speed four-seater lifts have been installed at La Thuile, Cortina and Madesimo, while Cervinia and Selva have improved their cable-car systems.

What else does Italy offer those prepared to pay that little bit more? The list is a long one. Starting at the bottom of the slopes, the resorts have the benefit - for British skiers - of being largely patronised by Italians. (The Dolomites are an exception, the resorts there attracting a considerable German presence.) This means that although the slopes can be busy at weekends, when skiers come up from the cities, they are usually blissfully empty during the week.

And the fact that the bulk of the clientele comes from Bologna, Milan, Turin or other centres of culinary excellence means that resort restaurants have to be good to survive. In stark contrast to otherwise comparable areas, Alpine Italy has not generated the sort of ski-tourist menu that blights basic catering elsewhere: in Sestriere, for example, there are plenty of the simple, family-run restaurants, serving good pasta, salads and wine, that you would also find down in the lowlands - a phenomenon not paralleled in French resorts. And although some of the more popular destinations, such as Sauze d'Oulx, also provide characteristic apres- ski nightlife, all of them have the sort of civilised, sophisticated cafes that abound in other parts of the country.

The resorts themselves again reflect lowland Italy, often with dense medieval centres full of narrow, cobbled streets: Bormio and Courmayeur are good examples. And the mountain scenery can be equally beautiful, particularly in the Dolomites - for the Where to Ski and Snowboard Guide, Cortina d'Ampezzo is "simply the world's most beautiful winter playground", with "perhaps the most dramatic scenery of any resort".

Italy has relatively few major resorts and, despite the extensive ski areas of the Milky Way and the Sella Ronda, nothing to compare with Val d'Isere and the Trois Vallees. The skiing is largely intermediate standard, with notably well-groomed slopes; the Dolomites offers more challenging terrain, particularly around Cortina, as does the Monte Rosa area. Although there are a few snow-sure, high-altitude resorts, such as Cervinia and Livigno, good cover can be a problem in the western Alps (it certainly was last season) and the lower-lying resorts in the Dolomites, despite the extensive snow-making capability. But when the snow is good, the skiing can be utterly charming - an aesthetic pleasure rather than a struggle.

Probably, the emphasis on intermediate slopes and good grooming reflects the desires of the predominantly Italian clientele.

Compared with the showily skilled French skiers and the mileage-mad Anglophones, Italians take their skiing lightly - surprisingly so, in a country where activities as mundane as walking and talking can be more expressive than a fashion show or an opera. That attitude is reflected in the atmosphere of the resorts: languid, friendly and sometimes mildly chaotic, they make a pleasant change both from the obsessive order of North American skiing and the aggressive disorder of France.

The secret is that Italians treat skiing as something to be enjoyed, along with eating, drinking and everything else. Hence the holiday atmosphere. To be able to share that, you don't mind paying a little more, do you?

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