Apart from the skiers who found tour operators queuing up to offer them cut-price holidays, there can't be many people who look back fondly on last winter, especially among those in the ski business. But Oskar Hinteregger, the outgoing head of the Austrian National Tourist Office in London, could well do so. True, the number of British skiers who went to Austria fell sharply in the 2008/9 season; but the numbers heading elsewhere declined even more, in percentage terms.
For almost a quarter of a century the rise of France as the destination of choice for UK skiers has been inexorable. And why not? It is close at hand, and it has excellent snow-sure, high-altitude terrain in what are the largest lift-linked ski areas in the world. But very recently France's market has lost its momentum; and Austria, our favourite place to ski until France took over in the 1980s, is making a comeback.
OK, the shift is not dramatic. In the last three seasons, according to the annual ski industry report published by the tour operator Crystal, France's share of the UK market has been successively 37.1, 37.5 and 37 per cent. Not much change there. But Austria has seen its share climb from 19 to 21.8 per cent and, last season, to 23.6. Could this turnaround be the start of a continuing trend? Certainly Hinteregger, who after 10 years in London takes charge of Austria's tourist office in Berlin at the end of the month, will hope so.
If that proves to be the case, where should we look for the roots of Austria's renaissance? The country's traditional virtues as a ski destination endure; but what has made it more attractive in recent years?
First, Austria has embraced innovation. Commonly regarded – with affection – as a rather old-fashioned place, it has put cutting-edge technology on hills that were once alive primarily with the sound of music. St Anton built the radical Galzigbahn lift, with its "Ferris wheel" that scoops skiers up off the ground; at Dachstein, near Salzburg, a "sky walk" was installed 2,700m above sea level to allow visitors to enjoy 360-degree views from a platform with a part-glazed floor; Innsbruck hired the celebrated architect Zaha Hadid, first to create its new ski jump and then to design stations on a rail link that takes skiers from the city centre up to the slopes.
More recently, the dominant style of Austrian ski-resort accommodation – cosy and chintzy – has begun to be displaced by a more modern minimalism. On my final ski trip last season, to Innsbruck and Lech, I saw two remarkable "design hotels". The first was the Aurelio, a super-expensive property in Lech designed by the London and Paris-based consultancy Mlinaric, Henry & Zervudachi for its owner, the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Very sleek, and with the "business-hotel" restraint which is suddenly fashionable in ski hotels, it makes a very good fit with Lech, which is becoming Austria's less flamboyant equivalent of the rich skier's playground of Courchevel 1650.
Far more surprising was the second hotel, the Interalpen, set on a beautiful, heavily wooded hillside site near Seefeld. This is a classic five-star resort hotel with 569 beds, built in Tirol style by the cranes-to-refrigerators conglomerate Liebherr and opened in 1985. But this year, one wing has been retro-fitted with the sort of exposed-stone-and-timber "lodge style" rooms familiar in classy western-US ski accommodation. It's a remarkable turnaround, though not quite as extraordinary as the hotel's drive-in lobby, at sub-basement level.
Accessibility is surely another factor in Austria's growing appeal. The growth of winter-season flights into Salzburg and Innsbruck, complementing the Ryanair services to peripheral airports at Klagenfurt, Graz and Friedrichshafen (actually just across the German border), has made most Austrian resorts readily accessible, with short transfers. For this ski season BA is starting a five-flights-a-week service from Gatwick to Innsbruck, competing on the route with easyJet; and at Salzburg there will be a total of 59 weekly return flights from the UK.
Access to the ski slopes has also improved. Until quite recently Austrian resorts were being criticised for a lack of investment in their infrastructure; it is easy to forget that now, when there are developments such as the installation for last season of three eight-seat gondolas and a six-seat chairlift at Brixen Valley's Ski Welt area.
Critics of Austrian skiing have also consistently made the point that it lacks the sort of very large, lift-linked ski areas characteristic of France. Although their terrain favours the French resorts in this regard (and others), considerable effort has gone into projects such as the expansion of the Ski Welt, which now has about 280km of pistes, and to new lift links in the Salzburger Sportwelt (including Wagrain, Flachau and St Johann).
A fourth factor is fortuitous. Now essential adjuncts of ski resorts, particularly for female guests, spas have long been a popular indulgence among Austrians. So in addition to the facilities in hotels, the country also has impressive, stand-alone spas in the mountains and elsewhere. Among them is the modern Aquadome at Längenfeld, on the Otztal Valley road up to Sölden and Obergurgl, which has capacity for 1,000 bathers. Its waters, at varying temperatures, fill bubbling brine pools, burst from geysers and jets, flow in and out of the dome and trickle into a salt grotto.
Do you need a reminder of the perennial virtues of Austria as a ski destination? The great draw is that the skiing is characteristically based either in attractive valley towns such as Schladming and Zell am See or in the sort of old mountain settlement (modernised and expanded, of course) exemplified by Alpbach and Obergurgl. The latter are far removed from purpose-built "ski villages"; they are the real thing, farming communities dominated by families who take a pride in their shared patrimony. Usually well-kept and attractive places, they are – unlike France's high-altitude high-rises – equally pleasant in summer and winter. So the hoteliers do year-round business, and can afford continually to invest in their properties.
The average ski-resort hotel is reasonably priced, small, and a family-run business. For the resorts, skiing is a family business, too: nowhere else caters so well for children. This is a country, after all, which for two decades has had an organisation, called Kinderhotels, which groups together hotels designed with children in mind. Areas reserved for young skiers are commonplace on Austrian slopes; last season, Serfaus in the Tirol region even installed a "family" lift, whose chairs are automatically lowered to pick up children.
Austrians do hospitality very well: in other countries you wouldn't find such guest-friendly touches as the umbrella, torch and vacuum flask which the Hotel Hochschober in Carinthia provides in every room. And while the local cuisine may not be renowned (except in premium resorts such as Lech), it is unusual to leave an Austrian ski-resort restaurant feeling dissatisfied by the food or the bill.
There are drawbacks to Austria's skiing, of course. The sort of heroic terrain which expert skiers demand is less readily available than it is in France, and many of the ski areas are too low to be naturally snow-sure. Snow-making machinery, now widespread, provides cover when the temperature is low enough; but as every skier knows, man-made snow is a poor substitute for the real thing. And while Austria's famously raucous après-ski is clearly an attraction for young skiers and boarders, it is tiresome for people as old as myself – although if standing in a crowded, smoky room until you are penniless and deaf is not your idea of fun, you have only to avoid the popular bars.
What does all this add up to? Perhaps a destination set for sustained growth in its popularity with UK skiers; we shall see. Oskar Hinteregger will watch intently from his new Berlin office.
Travel essentials : Austria
* Crystal Ski: 0871 231 5659; crystalski.co.uk
Aurelio, Lech (00 43 5583 2214; aureliolech.com ). Doubles from €675, half board.
* Interalpen Hotel, Telfs-Buchen (00 43 508 0930; interalpen.com ). Doubles from €370, half board.
* Hotel Hochschober (00 43 4275 8213; hochschober.at ). Half board from €320.
* Kinderhotels: 00 43 4254 4411; kinderhotels.com
* Aquadome: 00 43 5253 6400; aquadome.at
* Austrian National Tourist Office: 0845 101 1818; austria.info/ukReuse content