Austria: Weaker schilling gives skiing a lift

Expert skiers will find tougher slopes in France, but Stephen Wood thinks others could have a better holiday in Austria
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The Independent Travel

Every year, as the ski season approaches, Austria's national tourist office publishes a list of the improvements made at the country's resorts during the summer. Recent editions of the list have been impressively long. For the 1999/2000 season, there were £100m-worth of developments in ski-area facilities; and last season saw new chair-lifts installed at several major resorts, including an eight-seater and two six-seaters at Ischgl.

Every year, as the ski season approaches, Austria's national tourist office publishes a list of the improvements made at the country's resorts during the summer. Recent editions of the list have been impressively long. For the 1999/2000 season, there were £100m-worth of developments in ski-area facilities; and last season saw new chair-lifts installed at several major resorts, including an eight-seater and two six-seaters at Ischgl.

On this year's list, a new eight-seat lift and two six-seaters have already appeared by the time you get to Bad Kleinkirchheim, and the pace of change hardly slackens almost all the way through the alphabet to Wildschönau. True, there are 800 ski resorts in Austria, so even four dense pages of improvements don't go that far. Nevertheless, they indicate the extent to which the big resorts have responded to the criticisms, voiced in the 1980s, that they relied too heavily on the traditional virtues of Austrian skiing and didn't invest heavily enough in their skiing facilities.

Apart from the new lift installations, the list also shows ways in which other, perennial problems for Austria's skiing are being addressed. Many of the ski villages are low-lying – Kitzbühel, Söll and Zel am See are all below 800m – and their ski areas commonly do not stretch high enough up the mountains to be snow-sure. Hence the continuing investment in snow-making equipment. And because the country's individual ski areas are small, the policy of creating "ski regions" through lift-pass alliances also continues, in an effort to provide some competition for the huge, linked areas in France.

This season sees the advent of the biggest, the Amadé Ski Alliance: its single pass (costing £95 for six days in high season) will give access to 276 lifts and 865km of pistes in the separate ski areas of 25 resorts south of Salzburg, the best-known of which is the Schladming-Dachstein-Tauern area. These efforts to get the country's skiing up to speed are laudable. But the fact is that Austria – once the most popular destination for British skiers – cannot compete on equal terms with France. The 600km of high-mountain pistes at the single Trois Vallées area will always be preferable to the unlinked, low-lying skiing offered by the Amadé Ski Alliance; good skiers will always find a greater challenge on France's slopes; and, barring a technological miracle, real snow will always be better than the man-made stuff. There is good, snow-sure skiing at some Austrian resorts, notably Obergurgl, Ischgl and St Anton, but as far as topography is concerned, France clearly has the edge.

In other respects, however, the inequalities favour Austria, over France as well as other ski destinations. Tradition remains the trump card of Austrian resorts. Most of them are still essentially mountain communities, old settlements in the valleys from which farmers took their animals to the Alpine pastures above. If Austria has nothing to compare with the French resorts built in the 1960s and 1970s, that is – at least in many British skiers' minds – no bad thing. Instead, it has cosy, charming villages with ancient churches and often equally ancient families, who take an obvious pride in maintaining their locality. If you suspect that the attractions of these villages may be over-hyped, consider this: an Austrian national tourist office survey found this year that, among British visitors to the country, 35 per cent rated "resort appeal" as "better than expected".

Tradition has also played a big part in establishing the enviable reputation of Austria's ski-resort hotels. Most of these are small, family businesses whose management techniques differ markedly from those of the leisure conglomerates that control many tower blocks in French resorts. The customer-care they offer reflects the fact that their prime concern is to satisfy guests rather than shareholders. Thanks to the year-round business that Austrian mountain villages attract, the hoteliers can also afford to take a long-term view and continually invest in improving their premises and facilities. A few years ago, when the Austrian schilling was strong, these hotels might have seemed expensive; now they represent "exceptional value", as one major ski-tour operator told me.

What are the other attractions of Austria? The nightlife, for a start: the reputation of its après-ski scene is undiminished. For those who like their Red Bull with vodka and their music with a Euro-disco thump, nothing can beat an Austrian ski resort – or even an Austrian ski slope.

There's the skiing, too: although the shortage of tough terrain makes most Austrian resorts unattractive to experts, they do provide pistes that are perfectly adequate for less-adventurous intermediates and below, notably at Ischgl, Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Schladming and Söll. Mayrhofen and nearby Hintertux (see right) are highly rated by good snowboarders. And Austrian ski schools generally have an excellent reputation.

For this season, a group of ski schools in the Vorarlberg resorts – including up-market Lech and Zürs – have launched a "Learn in Three Days" guarantee for children from the age of five: any child who fails to achieve a carved turn in that time gets additional instruction free of charge. It sounds like a good deal until you realise that a child who has been falling over constantly for three days might not relish the prospect of further punishment.

Ultimately, the question of whether Austria is a suitable destination perhaps depends on how one interprets the term "skiing holiday". If it's the skiing that really matters, there's a stronger case to be made for France; but those for whom the "holiday" part is just as important could do a lot worse than head for a hotel in one of Austria's mountain villages.

Six Austrian resorts are participating in Freshers' Week 2002, offering free tuition, lift-pass and equipment hire to beginners: visit www.snowsportscountries.com. Thomson (0870 606 1470) has a special offer of a free lift-pass with holidays to Austria departing on 29 December

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