Skiing: Austria is back in favour

Last year's horrific avalanches at Galtur do not seem to have stopped British skiers making the trip to Austria. Just the opposite, in fact
Austria is dear to the hearts of many of the senior figures in the major British ski operators. At the start of their careers, a dozen or more years ago, it was the major destination for British skiers; and several of them - including Andy Perrin, the overall boss of both the Crystal and Thomson brands - began work as ski reps in Austrian resorts. So when touring the stands at this week's Daily Mail Ski Show, to enquire from them how Austria is performing, I could sense a personal, as well as commercial, satisfaction with the sales for 1999/2000.

In a difficult and unpredictable season, operators are reluctant to make projections for ultimate market shares; nevertheless, everyone to whom I spoke agreed that Austria would improve on the figure which it achieved in 1998/9 - 22 per cent of the British tour-operators' market. With the overall market currently in sharp decline, Austria won't threaten France (it took 29 per cent last year) as the number one destination, but it is generally expected to build on its recent growth by picking up business from Italy and Bulgaria.

There was general agreement, too, about the reasons for Austria's success: the high standard of its accommodation and the relatively low level of its currency. With the schilling at about 20 to the pound, hotels are, by British standards, extraordinarily good value, probably the best in the Alps. Surprisingly, skiers must thank summer-season guests for this. Unlike France, with its predominance of purpose-built resorts, Austria's skiing is largely set around old (if recently expanded) mountain villages - which has always been a big attraction for skiers and summer visitors alike. Continuity has allowed the tradition of family-run hotels to survive; and the year-round business has permitted them to invest in their premises and staff.

But Austria no longer relies simply upon tradition to attract winter customers. The tough years of the early Eighties, when British skiers began emigrating to France and the Germans (who make up the bulk of Austria's foreign visitors) ceased to be such reliable customers, persuaded Austrian resorts of the need to also invest in their ski areas: since last season, for example, more than pounds 100m has gone into the country's winter-sports facilities, with new chairlifts at several Tirol resorts including Alpbach, Kitzbuhel, Scheffau and St Anton. And, aware of the danger that a traditional customer is an ageing customer, some resorts have worked on attracting snowboarders - with such success that when I asked the editor of a German snowboarding magazine about his favourite resorts, Mayrhofen was the first place that came to mind.

But Austria still has a problem out on the slopes. As the boss of one the major tour operators put it at the ski show: "The British are `mileage' skiers: they want to cover as much ground as possible, and in that respect France has the edge over Austria." Although the linking of the resorts around Schladming (last season) and the expansion of Soll's "Ski-Welt" area (this season) have helped, Austrian slopes are not big enough - nor steep and snowy enough - to compete with the likes of Val d'Isere and Les Trois Vallees.

Snow cannons have helped minimise problems at the low-level resorts; but skiers in search of reliable (or real) snow are best-advised to head for the high spots such as Ischgl and Obergurgl, resorts with glacier skiing (notably Hinter Tux and Kaprun) or the Arlberg region that, for topographical reasons, gets more than its fair share of snow. Despite the great job the Hahnenkamm world cup race at Kitzbuhel does on Ski Sunday to prove the opposite, Austria's skiing is always going to be a bit tame for advanced skiers, except in the Arlberg area above St Anton, Lech and Zurs. However, intermediates will be more than happy at Ischgl, Kitzbuhel or most other Austrian resorts, and there are good beginners' slopes at Saalbach-Hinterglemm, at Schladming and at Soll.

On the other hand, Austria has clearly become the destination of choice for advanced apres-skiers. Before Soll decided that it was a family resort, its name was spoken with awe by lager-louts: now there are a handful of resorts where, I am told, one can happily pass the night being deafened and over-charged, notably Zell am See, St Anton and Mayrhofen. Such reputations should not, however, disturb those for whom Austrian Gemutlichkeit is more of an attraction than the gluhwein (or Red Bull and vodka, the apres-skier's favoured drink); unlike in some French resorts, the night- life rarely seems to impinge upon those whose preferred activity during the hours of darkness is sleep.

Despite the attractions of bed-and-board, those fine old Alpine villages and the well-organised (by European standards) facilities, something of a shadow was cast over Austria's skiing by the avalanche which hit Galtur last winter. There was a fear that it might dissuade British skiers from going to the country this season. Clearly, it has not done so - indeed, one ski-company executive told me that it has had the opposite effect, because "skiers remember it as a place that got a lot of snow last year". We're a sanguine bunch, aren't we?