France reaches for new heights

Offering easy access to great skiing, French resorts are likely to tighten their stranglehold on the British market this year, says Stephen Wood
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The Independent Travel

First, some statistics. France's seven mountain ranges have 361 ski areas offering 44,134 acres of slopes, equipped with more than 4,000 ski lifts and 6,408 artificial-snow cannons, and its resorts have more than five million guest beds. Second, another statistic: last season 36.4 per cent of British skiers travelling with major operators took their holidays in France.

Clearly, there is an element of cause-and-effect in these figures. Since our nearest serious skiing destination is so amply provided with facilities, it would be surprising if it didn't attract large numbers of British skiers. But size isn't everything: France also has what is arguably the best skiing in the world. The fabled ski areas of Chamonix, Val d'Isère and the Trois Vallées have long been magnets for British skiers. And when the two resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne – already popular destinations in their own right – are connected by a much-delayed cable car in the 2003-04 season, to form what is reckoned to be the world's third-largest ski area (after the Trois Vallées and the Swiss-French region of Portes du Soleil), another major attraction will be created.

The signs are that France's hold on the UK ski market will tighten this season. The travel business has been severely affected by last month's terrorist attacks in the US, but ski operators are reporting that long-haul destinations have seen the sharpest falls in bookings. Apart from its proximity, France has the added benefit that those reluctant to fly can easily travel to its resorts by train or car: one operator specialising in French ski holidays has already noted a significant switch from planes to trains. Factor in the long-term growth of independent ski operators, whose business is heavily oriented towards French resorts, and it would be no surprise to see France's share of the overall market climb towards 40 per cent this season.

Beyond its enduring virtues – the quality and quantity of its skiing, much of it in large areas on beautiful mountains high enough to be snow-sure – France now promises an even better ski-holiday experience. The lift systems, already the envy of resorts elsewhere, are yet more uplifting this season, particularly in the marginal regions: several fast, six-seater lifts have been installed in the southern Alps (which benefited from excellent snow last season) and the Pyrenees. And, at last, something is being done about the often crude and cramped accommodation in purpose-built resorts. Thanks to recent tax breaks for leisure-property developers – and particularly to the ambition of builders such as Chamonix-based MGM – it is now possible to stay in apartments as large and luxurious as those enjoyed by skiers in North America.

The conclusion of the long battle between the French and UK authorities over the right of those with qualifications from the British Association of Snowsports Instructors to teach in France should also make it easier to get good English-language tuition there, provided the news has penetrated into the mountains. It will be interesting to see how many British-qualified instructors are hired by the official Ecole du Ski Francais, but already the growth of British-run ski schools is spreading to less well-known areas, with the opening this season of EurekaSKI in Serre Chevalier in the southern Alps.

Finally, the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel will again make it possible for skiers in the Chamonix area to pop across to Italy, something they would have enjoyed last season when Courmayeur's snow was so plentiful. The Gotthard fire, however, makes it less likely that the tunnel will re-open this year, despite the French transport minister's recent promise.

There are, of course, perennial drawbacks to skiing in France. Little can be done about the absence of village charm in the purpose-built French resorts, short of the sort of large-scale development which the Canadian company Intrawest is undertaking in Les Arcs, where it is creating a new, 3,500-bed ski village. Popular though they may be with family skiers for their ski-in, ski-out convenience, the resorts built in the 1970s are blighted economically as well as aesthetically by their concrete towers. Unlike traditional Alpine villages they do not attract much summer business, and as a result they find it more difficult to invest in improved facilities and accommodation.

The decline in culinary standards at French ski resorts continues, too, with no corresponding decrease in prices. Non-skiers would probably find this hard to believe, but it is far easier (and cheaper) to get a good meal in North American ski resorts than it is in the French Alps. Service, in all its forms, also suffers badly by comparison with North America, although the Good Skiing Guide hopes this will change, along with most of the other drawbacks of French resorts, when Intrawest's new village at Les Arcs "shakes the French ski industry to its foundations".

But the foundations of French skiing are secure. Most skiers will put up with poor accommodation in exchange for the thrill of skiing in the beautiful high Alps around Chamonix. Exploring the vast Trois Vallées area or the off-piste routes of the Espace Killy is worth a couple of overpriced meals. Sweeping down the long runs of Les Arcs 2000 makes surly service forgettable. Even the much-maligned Flaine – possibly the next target of Intrawest's attention – offers superb skiing and unforgettable views in recompense for what many (myself not included) regard as the ugliest resort buildings in the Alps (see A-Z of Resorts, below).

There remains, however, something of a dark cloud over the French Alps. As reported on these pages last month, imminent court cases in Méribel could force up the costs of British operators in France, if the prosecutions are successful; and a threat to the legal status of chalets could have even more damaging economic effects. But those are problems for the future, if they arise. For this season, ski companies operating in France have more reason to be optimistic than most colleagues in the travel business.