The biggest expansion is at the Nevis Range, near Fort William, where the climber Alison Hargreaves, who died in August, skied regularly. Two new lifts have been built there and the ski area has increased from 300 to 600 hectares. There are now 11 lifts serving 35 runs around the 4,000ft- Aonach Mor. On-piste catering has also improved with the addition of the Rob Roy T-Bar (the Hollywood kilt movie, Rob Roy, was filmed in nearby Glen Nevis).
Snowboarding has become big business over the past year, and the resorts now offer instruction as well as board hire. In Glencoe (also in the Nevis range of mountains) the new academy offering snowboarding classes is just one of a series of developments which include a new beginners' lift and two snow grooming machines. Glencoe has seven lifts serving 16 runs, including the longest vertical descent in Scotland - 2,600ft. Skiers can buy one pass which covers both Glencoe and one of Scotland's eastern resorts - Glenshee in Royal Deeside (which the Glencoe Chairlift Company has recently acquired). There, 26 lifts serve 38 runs including the longest in Scotland at 1.25 miles.
Also in the east is Scotland's most popular resort: Cairngorm, near Aviemore, which last year attracted 211,000 skiers. It boasts nearly 30 miles of downhill runs on 32 pistes. The Cairngorm Chairlift Company, which runs the resort, is hoping to win approval for a mountain railway - the first modern furnicular to be built in the UK - to speed skiers to the slopes. At the nearby Lecht, existing pistes have been upgraded and the ski school expanded. Snowboarding has been introduced on the 20 runs.
In the past, skiers (almost half of whom come from south of the border or northern Ireland) have criticised the fragmented information and booking services for weekend and longer breaks. This year the Scottish Tourist Board has introduced a single telephone booking line through AT Mays in Aberdeen. Skiers and snowboarders can book all accommodation, equipment and lift passes through Ski Scotland Reservations.
Operators are also developing alternative Highland games, notably archery, falconry and off-road driving, to cater for non-skiers. At the same time, cross-country or Nordic skiing has been introduced in more areas than ever before. Taken together, operators say, these changes will ensure that the number of skiers this year reaches the 1987 peak of 665,000. Cally Fleming, a manager at the Nevis Range, said: "During the 1980s visitor numbers were very high but then the recession started and the figures dropped. In recent years we have been seeing increases again. With all the new developments - and with, hopefully, a good snow winter - we could hit 100,000." Ms Fleming insists that the latest investments will help scotch the myth that resorts north of the border offer poor value for money. "Skiing in Scotland has been transformed in recent years. It was true that as recently as five years ago, many resorts offered only average facilities and equipment. Capacity was low and there were queues and overcrowding. Everything was rather outdated. But competition between all the five resorts, coupled with the fact that many skiers who come to Scotland expect the high standards they have already experienced in the US and the Continent, has helped force up the quality."
Although resort operators have tackled the problem of under-investment, Scotland's other problem, the weather, remains. Glenshee is the only Scottish resort with a snow-making, as well as grooming, machine: the relative humidity of the resorts nearer the west coast is too high to make manmade snow production feasible. Meanwhile, poor snow falls mean there have been just a handful of skiing days this year. Tour companies are now hoping for a repeat of 1994 when because of plunging spring temperatures, skiers were still on the slopes of Aonach Mor (Nevis Range) on May Day.
At the moment there is not enough snow in Scotland for the skiing season to start. Overnight snowfalls have provided only light and insufficient coverings - frustrated skiers should head for the 200m dry ski slope at The Lecht. The five resorts are hoping that the season will begin at least by 1 January, the date on which skiing started last season. Ski Scotland Reservations (covering all five resorts) is on 01224 590 000. For snow reports call Ski Hotline Scotland 0891 654 654 and Ski Call Scotland 0891 700 777. The Ski Scotland brochure is available from the Scottish Tourist Board 0345 511 511. Five day packages, including bed and breakfast, equipment hire and ski passes, start at pounds 159.
HOW THE SCOTTISH SKI RESORTS MEASURE UP
35 runs, 11 lifts. Around 90,000 skiers came here during the 1994/5 season and it is hoped that numbers will be up to 100,000 in 1996. This season the ski area has doubled in size and there are two additional lifts. Future plans include the construction of a further chairlift during the summer. Nearest town - Fort William. Snow reports: 01397 705825
32 runs, 17 lifts. The most popular of Scotland's ski resorts, with 211,000 skiers last season. For the moment, this figure more or less fills capacity so ski numbers are not expected to increase significantly - although the new snowboarding facilities should attract more people. Nearest town - Aviemore (10 miles). Snow reports: 01479 861261
20 runs, 12 lifts. Improvements this year include a hi-tech snow-grooming machine, moving and flattening snow and grinding up ice. Last winter 45,000 people visited and there are hopes that numbers will be up 10 per cent this year, particularly since snowboarding has proved very popular here. Nearest town - Aviemore (30 miles). Snow reports: 019756 51440
38 runs, 26 lifts. New this year, a snowboard academy. Late snowfall delayed the start of the season last year, so winter visitor numbers for 1994/95 were down to 129,000 as opposed to 180,000 the year before. More skiers and (especially) snowboarders are expected this year. Nearest town - Pitlochry
Snow reports: 013397 41320
14 runs, 7 lifts. Now open every day and owned by the same company that manages Glenshee - one of the benefits being that joint ski passes with Glenshee are available. Last season, when the resort was open for just five days a week, 35,000 skiers came here. Many more are expected in 1995/6. Nearest town - Fort William. Snow reports: 01855 851226Reuse content