What's Serbian for 'Piste'?

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The Independent Online
Where will you be skiing this season? North America or Italy may be your choice, but some national tourist boards are keen for you to try somewhere new.

Almost a year ago, I stopped to enquire about skiing in Serbia at its national tourist board's stand in the World Travel Market, London's annual shindig for the trade. "Sure, you can ski in Serbia," said one of the staff, as if nothing could be simpler. She gave me a map of the country, and explained how to apply for a visa; then she went back to folding leaflets.

Organising a trip to Serbia is easier now because it is one of the new destinations in this year's brochures. Thomson is offering holidays in what it calls "Yugoslavia's best-kept secret", the resort of Kopaonik, about 175km south of Belgrade. It has had much more encouragement from the Serbian tourist office than I got; as a result it can charge as little as pounds 275 a week in late January for self-catering accommodation, with a learn-to-ski package, equipment hire, and a lift pass thrown in.

The big six ski operators add new destinations to their brochures for most seasons, and after a good '96/97 (and with the pound still strong against most other currencies) they are particularly bullish this year. So apart from the organic growth in currently popular countries - a whole slew of packages to resorts in north America and Italy has been introduced - and the dramatic return of Switzerland owing to the favourable exchange rate, the brochures have also expanded geographically, notably into northern and eastern Europe.

Why do the operators keep adding fresh snowfields? Andrew Russell, of Inghams, says simply that "we aim to match customer demand, and there are some customers who will always want to go somewhere new". But for Andy Perrin, marketing director of Crystal, going into new areas is something of a crusade: "It makes a statement about the kind of company we are," he says. "Our customers are people who chose to do something more exciting than lie on the beach for a week. The big tour operators, for whom skiing is only a small part of their business, tend to concentrate on a few established resorts where the volume is high. That's the bankers' approach to ski operating; it's not ours."

If Perrin is blowing his own trumpet, he has a right to do so. The most remarkable innovation in this season's major brochures is Crystal's packages to Gudauri, in Georgia. The resort, at 2,123m in the Caucasus mountains, is a place for serious off-piste skiing: the little piste map in the brochure shows just five ski-lifts, but seven landing points for helicopter shuttles, and the holidays are priced (from pounds 1,200 up to pounds 2,200) according to the length of the skiing descents - with a maximum vertical drop of 20,000 metres a week.

"We featured Gudauri in our brochure several years ago," says Perrin, "and a couple of hundred customers booked to go there. But we had to cancel it because of political unrest and fuel shortages: the flights went via Moscow then, and no one could guarantee that there would be enough fuel to continue on to Tbilisi." Now that the area is stable, and BA is running direct flights to Tbilisi, Perrin has been able to bring Gudauri back into the brochure. "I've never forgotten it ... the Caucasus is unlike any other ski area. It's breathtakingly beautiful; and when you are up in the mountains you can see no sign of mankind - no villages, roads or pylons."

Perrin says Gudauri is aimed at skiers "for whom memorable skiing is the key factor rather than cost"; going to the other extreme, Finnish Lapland - which both Crystal and Inghams have introduced this year - is, he says, for "people who don't want to ski every day". Inghams's Andrew Russell admits that "the downhill skiing there is limited, but it's an exotic area with lots of other attractions - including Santa Claus. We sold out the Christmas period very quickly, and we've found that even in January families still want to visit Santa."

Introducing a new destination is always something of a gamble. Norway, which Inghams also introduced this year, "hasn't worked as well as we expected", says Russell. (Asked whether it would be in next year's brochure, his reply was a measured "I don't know".) But the risks are reduced when the operator has support from the local tourist board. Russell says that Finnish Lapland been under consideration for a couple of years, but Inghams is offering it now because of an approach from Finland - which gets an amazing 15,000 visitors to Lapland from Britain in December but averages a paltry 1,500 a month for the rest of the year, and is therefore eager to appear in package-tour brochures.

For its venture into Serbia, Thomson has also had local support, including a weekly charter flight laid on by the national airline, JAT. Primarily a beach-holiday company (and presumably the main target of Andy Perrin's barb about the big tour operators' approach to skiing), Thomson is now developing its ski range. This year, it has dramatically increased its packages to north America (thanks to Monarch's twice-weekly charter flight to Denver, which Thomson instigated), and has already seen sales increase by 45 per cent.

The Serbian packages compete at the other end of the market, with Bulgaria. "Don't ask me why, but Bulgaria is a popular destination for British skiers," says Ian Simkins, Thomson's ski marketing manager. He thinks that "Serbia offers a better-quality product at a comparable price. I can't deny that there is an 'awareness' problem about Serbia; but on the other hand there is political pressure on the country to make our skiing holidays succeed. Croatia has direct charters, and so has Slovenia - if we withdraw, Serbia will be the odd one out." The tourist organisations, he says, are under a lot of pressure, which obviously benefits us. Because it means they're very flexible in helping us."

Flexible and helpful? Times change. The Serbia stand may be worth another visit at next month's World Travel Market.