Why don't British skiers favour Switzerland and Italy?

One rides high on tradition and innovative development, the other offers good value and some of Europe's most beautiful skiing terrain.
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The Independent Travel

France is by far the most popular destination among British skiers. According to the 2008 edition of the annual Ski Industry Report produced by the tour operator Crystal, it had 37.5 per cent of the UK market last season. Next came Austria, with 21.8 per cent. Behind these two market leaders, things were not so clear-cut. Italy was certainly in third place, but its share of UK skiers was slipping. The next country – principality, to be strictly accurate – was Andorra. But its market is declining fast: should the downward trend continue this season, the Pyrenean state will rank far behind Switzerland.

So for 2008/9, Italy and Switzerland can be bracketed together. But they make an odd couple. The former, in fact, makes an odd couple all on its own.

Switzerland is definitely old-school. Created at the end of the 13th century, more than 500 years before the unification of Italy, this is an ancient country built on tradition. Cuckoo clocks and army knives, trains that run on time and bank accounts that have no names: everyone knows what Switzerland was, and is.

No country can make a stronger claim to be the cradle of British skiing since its mountains were the chosen terrain of two of the great advocates of the sport, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Arnold Lunn. And many of its resorts easily predated such landmarks of skiing as Stowe in Vermont, St Anton and Val d'Isère. But here's the paradox. One of Switzerland's premier destinations, thanks in large part to the Matterhorn, is Zermatt. Skiers have been travelling to it on the narrow-gauge, mountain railway – another Swiss characteristic – for almost 80 years.

You ride the same route today; but on arrival in the village you find not a living museum but a place of remarkable innovation, notably in architecture and technology. I was in Zermatt last month to see a new snowmaking installation on the Klein Matterhorn (as reported on these pages). Based on an Israeli technology that permits snowmaking at any temperature, it is the first machine of its type, and produces 1,000 cubic metres of snow per day. While on the mountain I also had a glance at construction work on the new restaurant, apparently the highest in the Alps, which uses "green" technology extensively. Back in the village I slept in the new Matterhorn Focus hotel, designed by a partnership which included Heinz Julen, whose many buildings in Zermatt have made it a showpiece of hi-tech architecture.

Not a bad haul of developments for the new season, certainly; but during the visit I found that there were two more new hotel buildings facing each other across the valley, one an authentic Julen design (an annexe to the Coeur des Alpes), the other a facsimile (the Firefly hotel). Perhaps I do get overexcited about Zermatt's innovations: I did, mistakenly, claim in October that there would be a new lift up the Klein Matterhorn for this season. (It actually opens in a year's time.) Nevertheless, the resort is extraordinary: early next year it expects to confirm that a Julen-designed hotel will be built on the Klein Matterhorn.

Elsewhere in Switzerland you can find the same combination of skiing tradition with design and innovation taken to a high level. This season there's a new "design hotel" at snowboarder-friendly Laax called Rocksresort, and a five-star hotel in Villars, Chalet RoyAlp, in a decadent, late-modern-chalet style (which is catching on across the Alps); an eight-seat chairlift, only the second in Switzerland, has been installed at Champery, and fashionable Engelberg has a new, panoramic cable-car with floor-to-ceiling windows; Grindelwald is launching the "First Flier", an aerial cableway on which speeds of 90 kmh will be achievable; and so on. These are merely the highlights of a 41-page document on novelties for 2008/9 produced by Switzerland's national tourist office.

And the timeless qualities of Swiss skiing? Excellent management of the slopes, resorts and hotels; great mountains, many of them with high-altitude, snow-sure ski areas; a transport system unmatched elsewhere in Europe; resort and hospitality staff who speak a fistful of languages. The downside is the Swiss franc. Apart from a couple of blips in recent years, it has consistently been expensive for us. And since the start of the year, during which the euro has appreciated against the pound by about 24 per cent, the Swiss franc has gone up by 31 per cent. Bargains are hard to find in Switzerland.

Italy, on the other hand, was always regarded as a "good value" destination until the advent of the euro. It still offers better value than France; but when £1 barely buys one euro, Italy cannot be cheap.

Curiously, Italy's skiing shares almost none of the attributes of Switzerland's. For example, the Italian state tourist office's equivalent of the 41 pages of information about improvements in Switzerland is a reference to three new low-cost flights into Piedmont and a note to me disclaiming knowledge of "any new lifts, hotels or offers". (The flights, by the way, are on Ryanair from Stansted and Birmingham to Cuneo, and from five regional airports – including Glasgow and Bournemouth – to Turin, plus an easyJet service from Gatwick to Turin.)

Lacking the predominantly Alpine image of Switzerland, Italy badly needs marketing as a ski destination: how many non-skiers even know that winter sports take place there? And the fact that Italian ski areas have – in the view of the UK travel business – consistently lacked investment makes getting the message out about new lifts doubly important. This season, for example, the Aosta valley has major lift improvements at Aosta-Pila, Cervinia and La Thuile. But Italy has an absurd system of tourism promotion, with the budget split among regions. This arrangement so dilutes the effort that only bats could hear the little squeaks of information that emerge.

Generally, Italian resorts lack the technical innovation of those in Switzerland, though there are exceptions to this: Sestriere's bold investment in snowmaking, for instance, and the sophisticated, real-time "motorway" signage on the Sella Ronda circuit in the Dolomites.

But the most remarkable development is the work of a group of Irish investors at Pragelato, just beneath Sestriere. Already open is a five-star hotel-with-residences and a cable car to carry guests up to the substantial "Milky Way" ski area (unless they are very cash-rich and time-poor, in which case they can use the helicopter service). And this month the investors have announced a far bolder plan: to build two more hotels (with a spa, apartments, shops) and to turn an abandoned farming village up on the hillside into a community of up-market chalets served by a dedicated gondola. Pragelato is also to have Europe's first private ski area, open to chalet owners, hotel guests and (planning permission being in the hands of the locality) residents of the village.

Happily for Italian skiing, its attractions are specific to the country. The locals are pleasant and outgoing, and the restaurants combine high standards with low prices, a trick relatively easy to pull off with simple Italian menus. In the Dolomites, where early snow has been plentiful this season, Italy has by far the most beautiful mountains in which to ski: as well as the sublimely scenic Sella Ronda circuit (an easy day's skiing for intermediates), it also offers the famous "hidden valley" descent from Passo Falzarego, near Cortina. Add to that Italian skiers' determinedly languid attitude in queues, and you have a most civilised place to go skiing, despite its structural faults.

Getting there

Stephen Wood travelled to Zermatt with the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30; myswitzerland.com) and Swiss International Air Lines (0845 601 0956; swiss.com), which flies to Zurich and Geneva, three and a half-hours from Zermatt.

Staying there

Hotel Matterhorn Focus, Zermatt (00 41 27 966 2442; matterhorn-focus.ch). B&B from SFr190 (£112).

Hotel Coeur des Alpes, Zermatt (00 41 27 966 4080; coeurdesalpes.ch). B&B from €306 (£276).

Firefly, Zermatt (00 41 27 967 7676; firefly-zermatt.com). B&B from SFr770 (£452).

Rocksresort, Laax (00 41 81 927 7777; rocksresort.com). A week's rental of a two-bedroom apartment starts at SFf1,029 (£604).

Chalet RoyAlp, Villars (00 41 24 495 9090; royalp.ch). Doubles from €476 (£432).

Kempinski Pragelato Village, Italy (kempinski-pragelato.com). B&B from €485 (£440).

More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254;