Are Italian slopes going downhill?

With deep early snow fall, quiet runs, excellent food and good value why are the Brits forsaking the Italian resorts in favour of those in Switzerland?

As a destination for British skiers, Italy has suffered badly over the last two seasons. Its share of the UK market has fallen steadily from about 20 per cent to less than 15. And this winter, things are going to get worse.

As a destination for British skiers, Italy has suffered badly over the last two seasons. Its share of the UK market has fallen steadily from about 20 per cent to less than 15. And this winter, things are going to get worse.

The slide started, say the tour operators, with the Italian resorts' failure to invest the proceeds of the boom in British visitors during the mid-1990s in improving facilities. But what gave it momentum was two winters of poor snow in the western Alps. Elsewhere, in resorts such as Livigno and Cervinia, the cover was good; but in the Milky Way area, notably the traditional British stronghold of Sauze d'Oulx, snowfalls were sparse - and the whole country suffered as a result.

This winter, the snow has come early, with falls of half a metre occurring last month. But it is already too late. Two years of falling demand led to British tour operators cutting capacity in Italy to such an extent that, no matter how good snow conditions may be, the number of British skiers travelling there will - according to one tour operator's - estimate - decline by as much a 30 per cent this season.

Some senior figures in the business are more optimistic: Andrew Peters, managing director of Thomson's ski and lakes division, says that he "expected the worst in Italy" but has been pleasantly surprised by sales which so far are up 27 per cent on this time last year. Thomson did, exceptionally, introduce a new Italian resort in this season's brochure, little Ovindoli, most notable for being the last place where the Pope was seen skiing (it is handily close to Rome). But the general view among the tour operators, as they planned this season's programmes, was that the prospects for growth in Italy were so slim that they would have to look for new business elsewhere. So the number of Italian holidays was cut - and capacity in Switzerland, already enjoying something of a revival, was increased.

First Choice, for example, embarked on a "toe-in-the-water" programme in three Swiss resorts, which has already shown enough promise for it to be repeated next season. Part of the country's attraction for the operator is that when French resorts are filled during the local school holidays in February, there is still accommodation available in Saas-Fee, for example, for customers arriving on its Geneva flights; and that strategy is working says Adrian Harwood, First Choice's marketing and planning director. "But Crans-Montana is the resort which is selling really well for us," he says, "because of the good prices we have there".

So what are British skiers missing by shunning Italy? In pure skiing terms, the country has always suffered by comparison with its Alpine neighbours: with the notable exception of the Milky Way, most of its ski areas are relatively small and the terrain - except around Cortina in the Dolomites and the Monte Rosa area above Turin - is generally better suited to intermediates than advanced skiers. But as a destination for a skiing holiday, Italy is hard to beat.

Many of the resorts, particularly Bormio and Courmayeur, are still ancient mountain villages at heart, and are surrounded by some of the most magnificent Alpine scenery; the atmosphere in them is pleasantly relaxed, reflecting the Italians' somewhat languid approach to skiing; and the quality of the food in resort restaurants is unequalled elsewhere. The last is one benefit of the fact that the resorts' clientele is dominated by Italians coming up for the weekend from the big cities of Milan, Turin and Bologna: habituated to excellent cooking, they demand nothing less when they go skiing. Another is that when they retreat down to the valleys on Sunday, the ski areas are delightfully quiet.

The evidence that skiers are giving up all this and heading for the more traditional, more challenging and recently more snow-sure ski areas of Switzerland is sketchy: so far as I know, there have been no reports of Britons heading up en masse from Cervinia to the Swiss border, and casting themselves onto the slopes of neighbouring Zermatt. Early bookings for Switzerland showed a dramatic, 50 per cent increase over last season; but the curve has since flattened. And even though specialists such as Swiss Travel Service (whose brochures are published much later than those of the big operators) seem to be perking up the market, no one has reported to me that Switzerland is significantly outperforming the market - which, depending upon who you ask, could be up five per cent (AC Nielsen's market research), 18 per cent (Thomson's figure) or 100 per cent (Erna Low, now making self-drive inroads to the Swiss market, is having an extraordinarily good season).

The appeal of Switzerland is of course markedly different from that of Italy. While the latter has only one landmark resort, Cortina, Switzerland is full of great skiing brand-names such as St Moritz, Davos and Zermatt. They do skiing very well in these - and other - mountain communities, most of them still effectively family-run by scions of former shepherds grown rich on slopes covered with snow. A century of skiing is not something to be taken lightly, and it isn't: despite their recent - and quite surprising - embrace of the snowboarding community, Swiss resorts are very traditional places, with excellent hotels, well-managed lifts and respect for the natural environment all playing a part in that tradition.

The slopes are generally much more challenging than in Italy; the villages and their settings live up more successfully to picture-postcard images; and the cuisine is markedly more haute. There is a price to be paid for all this, in Swiss francs: although the strength of the pound has made Switzerland more accessible, it is never cheap. In this respect the alignment of Switzerland and Italy, with its historically weak lira, is a curious one, since while the latter can be cheap (and cheerful) the former is, at best, "good value" (and somewhat serious-minded).

So you pays your money and you makes your choice? Normally, maybe. But to judge from the last few skiing seasons, it's more a case of reading the snow reports and then making your choice.

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