Skiing In Austria: Constant craving

Austria's intermediate slopes keep British skiers going back for more every year. Now, scores of new flights from the UK each week are helping increase its popularity.
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The Independent Travel

Andorra and Bulgaria have made a good story in recent years, because both countries have substantially developed as skiing destinations. The former decided to move its skiing upmarket in search of better profit margins; the latter invested in an attempt to snap up the British budget skiers - and at the same time turned the resort of Bansko into a Klondike for ski-apartment prospectors, also mainly from the UK.

With the other main destinations for UK skiers, however, it's the details that change year after year, not the basic product. The desire to find some new editorial angle each season, and some reason why those who have always skied in country A should now switch to country B, is strong; but the givens are given. France's mountains remain consistently high, and there is no sign of the standards of Austria's family run hotels lowering, either. Unfortunately, any annual series of articles on the virtues of different skiing destinations is destined to say much the same sort of thing, year after year.

This seems particularly true of Austria. It's a conservative country, and its mountain areas mostly live up to the traditional stereotype. Of course there are significant developments on the slopes for most seasons: this year, for example, St Anton installed a cable car loaded at ground level (ie no stairs) and Mayrhofen now has the country's biggest, 160-person cable car. But it's the constants - the hospitality, and the predominance of intermediate slopes - which decide who goes there, not a new lift or a fleeting fashion. So Austria seems well embedded in its niche in the UK ski market.

Yet this season there's a development which could lead to a step change. In the outbound ski market it's the "independent" sector that's showing most growth, up by a third since the Millennium. Essentially, independent travellers are skiers who organise their own trips, or book direct with ski companies.

The development is an increase in flights from the UK to ski-holiday airports in Austria. These are not charter flights, on which the bulk of tour-operator and school-trip clients travel; rather they are scheduled flights, which independent travellers are most likely to use. So this squadron of aircraft flying to Austria will facilitate trips for UK skiers in the fastest-growing part of the market.

Most of the flights go to Salzburg, but they depart from various UK airports. Thomsonfly has 19 new services per week, from Gatwick, Manchester, Coventry, Sheffield-Doncaster and Bournemouth; BA and its associate GB Airways are introducing flights from Gatwick and Manchester, too. Then there's Flybe from Birmingham, Exeter and Southampton, Ryanair from East Midlands and Liverpool, and Jet2 from Leeds-Bradford.

Other Austrian airports with increased flights from the UK are Klagenfurt in the south, which has a restored Ryanair service from Stansted and a new Thomsonfly route from Manchester, and Innsbruck in the north, which will handle extra flights on the BA route from Gatwick plus an Austrian Airlines service from Manchester.

Clearly, not all the seats on these flights will be occupied by Britons, or skiers, or indeed passengers. Nevertheless, a total of almost 50 new flights per week is bound to make a difference to the British presence on Austria's slopes: assuming an average of 120 seats per plane, the increase in capacity is not far short of 6,000 people per week.

A measure of the excitement about this prospect is the number of resort websites now carrying booking details for taxi and minibus shuttles from the airport. Obviously aimed at independent travellers, these transfers are reasonably priced: Salzburg airport to Zell am See, for example, costs €65 (£46) per person for a round trip.

This is good news for Austria; but it's not quite the whole story. The flights are in place, and the resort transfers, too. But what about the accommodation? That could be a problem. At peak times, a shortage of beds in the mainly quite small resorts could put a brake on the growth of the market. What, though, are the perennial qualities of Austria's skiing, the ones that have established its niche in the UK market? It is now the destination of choice for about 20 per cent of British skiers, some way behind France in popularity.

First, Austria is handicapped by its topography. The low-lying slopes are not as snow-sure as those at high altitude in France, and nor do they offer the same degree of challenge to skiers. There are exceptions: St Anton has some serious skiing, and both Obergurgl and Sölden, plus St Anton, Lech and Zürs, have reliable snow. But in essence Austria is a destination for keen intermediates (who make up a large proportion of British skiers) and is at its best between Christmas and late March.

Second, the old mountain villages make the Austrian Alps a charming place for a ski holiday. The creation of the high-altitude French ski areas between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s involved the building of new, purpose-built "villages". With ski-in, ski-out accommodation, these were (and are) very convenient; but the involvement of big, outside investors disturbed the relationships and traditions of Alpine communities, and the architectural style of that era was so lacking in charm that attracting summer guests proved extremely difficult.

Some Austrian ski villages have put on weight with the rich pickings of affluent skiers; but even Ischgl, with mega-chalet hotels which at ground-floor level resemble Middle Eastern banks, still has the feel of a longish village (albeit one now blessed with a bypass). Characteristically the villages are dominated by former farming families who act as guardians of the common patrimony, providing investment in developments when necessary but also protecting the natural and built environment.

The villages, and the beautiful resort towns such as Kitzbühel and Schladming, attract visitors all year. With a four-season income, hoteliers can afford to regularly upgrade their properties. Those involved in contracting accommodation for UK ski companies usually hold family run Austrian hotels in high regard, and rightly so. One doesn't forget guest-friendly touches such as the torch, umbrella and vacuum flask in every room at the Hotel Hochshober, near the base of the small Turracher Höhe ski area in Carinthia.

If the key to many of the good things about Austrian skiing is locality, that also has a downside. The fact that the country has 800 places to ski means that we can all spend a few lifetimes discovering them; but it would do no harm for more of them to be linked. While the ski circuit around Lech and Zürs is a delight, and Kitzbühel is working towards lift-linking the skiing in its area, Austria still has nothing to compare to Paradiski, the Trois Vallées and Espace Killy in France, the sort of large-scale domains so beloved of high-mileage British skiers.

On the other hand, Austria does have an awesome reputation for its raucous nightlife. The greatest excesses I have witnessed have been in Ischgl, where to return to the main lift base after 4pm is to be exposed to the world's worst dance music, milling crowds and spilling beer - all of which is only foreplay to the evening's entertainment. And the same sort of extreme warm-up routine can be seen a valley away at St Anton.

Peace and quiet are in short supply in the ski regions of Austria. Which is strange: in most respects this is a civilised country with high service standards, dependably good (if uninspired) food, a keen respect for the environment, and trains that run on time. But one form of pollution - aural - goes unchecked. One cannot avoid the dreadful music, played at high volume through loudspeakers at the top of most major ski lifts in Austria's resorts. For years I have moaned about that on these pages. Expect another moan in 12 months' time.

Thomsonfly: 0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com; BA: 0870 850 9850; www.ba.com; GB Airways: 0870 850 9850; www.gbairways.com; Flybe: 0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com; Ryanair: 0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com; Jet2: 0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com; Austrian Airlines: 08701 24 26 25; www.aua.com

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