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.
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
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 501Reuse content