Facing an uphill battle

Will improvements in services and infrastructure attract more British skiers to Switzerland and Italy? Stephen Wood reports

It was British Columbia which really got the ball rolling, with epic early-season snowfall. The Alps started more slowly, with promising reports from Austria and France. Then, towards mid-December, it was the turn of Italy and Switzerland to announce that winter had arrived. Italian resorts in the north-west of the country – including the Aosta Valley – enjoyed some of the most productive storms so far in the Alps; then snowfalls of up to six feet were recorded in the Dolomites. Soon afterwards, the skies opened over Switzerland, allowing its ski areas to claim to have the deepest fresh snow anywhere.

When snow starts falling, ski holidays start selling, too. As yet, however, tour operators have no substantial cause for celebration. Although sales in the first half of December picked up to the point where they exceeded those in the same period of 2008/09, that was no great achievement: sales last year were near-disastrous.



Despite changes both in the weather and in the business environment, some things remain the same. Which country is making the running in holiday sales? France, as always. During the summer there was much griping in the big UK ski companies about the failure of the French to respond to the credit crunch; and alternative destinations – notably Austria and Italy – were touted as potential growth areas, at France's expense. Now, it seems, the French are being responsive, and the perennial virtues of the big, high ski areas of France are once again a key part of the sales reps' pitch.



Last season, in a UK market which lost more than one skier in 10, France took a 37 per cent share of the remaining business; its closest competitor was Austria, with 23.6 per cent. As noted on these pages in October, Austria has performed well in recent years, chipping away at France's market leadership. But the third- and fourth-favourite destinations among UK skiers, Italy and Switzerland, continue to lag some way behind with, respectively, 13 and 6 per cent of the market.



Mathew Prior, who as the boss of TUI Ski in the UK is responsible for the ski programmes of Crystal, Thomson and First Choice, was one of those looking to Italy for growth this season. Now he reports that, after getting off to a good start, sales to Italy are currently only on a par with last year's. He expects that to be the case at the end of the season, too. And as far as Switzerland is concerned, his lack of enthusiasm in predicting a flat year – "Like the country, it will be neutral", he says – suggests that it will do well to achieve even that.



Of the two countries, Switzerland clearly has a firmer grip on the imagination of skiers. A largely Alpine country created at the end of the 13th century – more than 500 years before the unification of Italy – Switzerland is the classic ski destination. No country can make a stronger claim to be the cradle of British skiing, since its mountains were the chosen terrain of two of the great advocates of the sport, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Arnold Lunn. It has many world-renowned resorts – Zermatt, Verbier, St Moritz and Wengen among them – and several of the Alps' signature mountains, including the Matterhorn, Eiger and Jungfrau. It has fine hotels and fine hotel staff, the latter produced by its long-established hospitality and catering schools. Who wouldn't want to go skiing there?



But then who wouldn't want to ski in Italy? The country has some marvellous, varied skiing: challenging in the Monterosa region, relaxing on the linked Via Lattea ("Milky Way") area, and beautiful in the Dolomites, a skiing landscape like no other. Its resorts are usually uncrowded except at weekends, and the restaurants are consistently the best available to budget-conscious skiers.



On the other hand, it can't match the reputation of Switzerland as a ski destination in the UK: would the man in the street believe that twice as many Britons ski in Italy as in Switzerland? And nor can it match the Swiss ski areas for their mix of classic skiing and up-to-date infrastructure.



Such is Switzerland's commitment to technological innovation that in a normal year there is a substantial list of novelties for the season. But this year is exceptional: the list contains little in the way of significant hardware, apart from a new gondola to Trockener Steg at Zermatt, the six-seater "Eiger North Face" chairlift at Grindelwald, and the private funicular finally completed at the Tschuggen Grand Hotel in Arosa, plus the first phase of Gstaad's eight-year plan to install enough snow-making capability to meet 50 per cent of the ski area's needs. Instead, the innovations for 2009/10 are softer and more service-oriented. Among the many new spas are two that offer "sound-bathing" treatments, and another at St Moritz in which a natural spring is harnessed to provide a "mountain maze" of baths and steam rooms climbing up four levels. And special facilities for children – notably adventure snow-parks – are spreading like wildfire.



Unusually, Italy has done much to improve its lift infrastructure for this season. For example, Plan de Corones in the Dolomites now has a 10-seater Marchner lift fitted with heated leather seats; the Monterosa region has a new 60-person cable car linking Passo dei Salati with the Indren glacier; and, not far away, the old Frachey-Alpe Ciarcerio chairlift has been replaced by a funicular.



The inefficiency of the lift system having long been a drawback of its skiing, these new developments ought to increase Italy's potential for attracting UK skiers. But unfortunately its entry into the eurozone eroded one of the country's traditional assets, namely the good value offered in the resorts. There was much talk about price rises when the lira was replaced; and since then the cost of holidaying in Italy has been swept upwards by the strength of the euro, to the point where it is hardly cheaper than Switzerland, if at all. A couple of years ago I did a reckoning to compare holiday costs on either side of the Matterhorn; Cervinia (in Italy) was no cheaper than Zermatt (in Switzerland), except for ski-equipment hire, which cost about 20 per cent less.



Given that low prices have long been what attracted tour operators and skiers to Italy, the increase in its UK market in 2008/09, however slight (it was 1.1 per cent), is interesting. Perhaps it was just a memory of cheap prices that led skiers, in straitened times, to go there; perhaps the rather utilitarian style of most Italian resorts (Cortina and Madonna di Campiglio excepted) just seemed appropriate to the economic times; or perhaps Italy is heading back to its long-term default position of a 15 per cent share of the UK market.



There is a better argument for Switzerland making progress in 2009/10. Surprisingly, despite our limited contribution to its success, it is on a roll at the moment. According to an independent survey, 2008/09 was the best season its lift companies have had in five years: the number of skiers was 2.2 per cent up on the previous season, and turnover increased by 1.9 per cent.



Access to the country has improved for this season: in addition to the numerous flights into Geneva and Zurich on Swiss and easyJet, there are new weekly services into Sion from Stansted and – more surprisingly – from Oxford to Geneva, the latter on a Geneva-based airline called Baboo. Apart from little Baboo (which "code-shares" with Air France), Swiss is now the only scheduled airline to carry skis and boards to the Alps free of charge.

Should one be surprised that the offer is exclusive to airlines based in the classic ski destination? Probably not.



Travel essentials

Switzerland:

zermatt.ch; 00 41 27 966 8100

verbier.ch; 00 41 27 775 3888

engadin.stmoritz.ch/en; 00 41 81 830 0001

myjungfrau.ch; 00 41 33 855 1414

gstaad.ch/en; 00 41 33 748 8181

arosa.ch; 00 41 81 378 7020

myswitzerland.com



Italy:

monterosa-ski.com; 00 39 01 25 303 111

vialattea.it; 00 39 01 22 799 411

plandecorones.net; 00 39 04 71 251 681

cervinia.it; 00 39 01 66 944 311

dolomiti.org; 00 39 04 36 3231

campiglio.to; 00 39 04 65 447 501

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
booksNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
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
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015