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.

people And here is why...
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
Life and Style
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?