France had a great ski season in 2008/9. Conditions were excellent throughout most of the country: snow fell heavily, and consistently cold weather meant that it persisted at high and low altitudes. The result was a 6.6 per cent increase in resort visits, and a seasonal record of 58.6 million skier-days. Total receipts for French ski-lift operators were up 8.9 per cent from the previous year.
But the benefits of this bumper season were not spread evenly. The main beneficiaries were small ski areas in which I (and possibly you) have never skied, places like Métabief in the Jura, Plancher Les Mines in Franche-Comté and Le Lioran in the Massif Central. Although its share of France's skiing activity is very small (usually only two per cent), the Massif Central's skier-days increased by 63 per cent last season; in contrast, none of those areas of the northern and southern Alps, which attract the great bulk of British skiers, managed to match the 6.6 per cent growth in the country as a whole.
There were three reasons for this. The first was the global phenomenon – particularly noticeable in the US – of skiers choosing, in the face of economic crisis, to stay close to home rather than heading off to big resorts. The second was that low-lying areas did better than usual because, for once, they had good snow throughout the season. Thirdly, according to the association of French ski-lift operators (SNTF), "the international resorts suffered from a contraction of some foreign markets". That was our fault.
Just how important British skiers are to the major French resorts is clear from the SNTF's annual report for 2009. Its study of the foreign presence in what the association describes as "the very big resorts" (10 were sampled, ranging from Courchevel to Serre Chevalier) reveals that in 2008/9 their ski clientele was split almost down the middle, 51 per cent being French and the rest exogenous. Remarkably, 21 per cent of all skiers were British, a proportion well in excess of that of the Dutch (six per cent) and the Germans (three per cent).
The report adds that in the previous season, before the credit crunch, British skiers had been even more numerous. In some resorts the predominance of British guests was even more marked. Alpe d'Huez was one of those sampled by the SNTF; and its own figures show that last season 32 per cent of skiers were British. The next biggest foreign constituency was the Danes, who made up four per cent.
Research in the UK confirmed that France, along with other ski destinations, attracted fewer Britons in 2008/9 than in the previous season; it also indicated that France lost UK market share to Austria. The shift was slight, but there seems little likelihood of France regaining lost ground in 2009/10, because fewer holidays are being offered there to UK skiers.
The dramatic reduction in the number of chalets available from the big tour operators will particularly affect France, the dominant chalet-holiday destination. Also, the perception among the tour operators that the French ski business has been "inflexible" in the face of the current economic difficulties has led them to favour other destinations.
None of this, of course, impacts on the perennial virtues of French skiing. Its biggest asset is the ski terrain, which offers the unbeatable combination of altitude and plenitude. The giant ski areas of Les Arcs and La Plagne (whose joined-up Paradiski area is the biggest ski domain in the world), the Espace Killy at Val d'Isère/Tignes and the Trois Vallées all provide the sort of high-mileage skiing which Britons demand. And the areas climb well above 3,000m, making them snow-sure even in poor seasons.
To this one can add the sheer natural beauty of the French Alps. The Andes may be more dramatic and the Dolomites prettier; but when I think of great mountainscapes, it is those in France that spring to mind, notably the view from Les Grandes Platières at Flaine across to Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi, and the curve of the Isère valley seen from the top of the Grande Motte cable car at Tignes.
Thirdly, France's lift system, already the envy of other skiing countries, continues to attract heavy investment. Each year, the SNTF used to come up with a new measure of the scale of its members' operations: in its 2006 report, for example, it calculated that in the unlikely event of all the country's lifts being laid end to end they could connect Paris with Cairo.
If the SNTF no longer provides such arresting images, that is presumably because the reach of the lift-system is no longer growing, thanks primarily to the current trend for large, six- and eight-seat lifts to replace two or more smaller ones (and to the fact that few ski areas are adding new terrain). Nevertheless, announcements of new lift installations in French resorts continue. There are to be new six-seaters this season at Les Arcs, Courchevel and Les Menuires, plus a couple at Le Grand Massif; and Flaine has two new "quads".
France even has a new, or at least re-born, resort this season. A blaze of international publicity followed the announcement, two seasons ago, that the small resort of Abondance in the Portes du Soleil area was to cease ski operations. It was, the world was told, the first ski-resort to fall victim to global warming. In fact, the problems were more economic than environmental; and Abondance will restart its lifts for this season.
For the committed skier, the mountains, slopes and lift system amount to a persuasive argument for French skiing. But those driven by baser impulses – a concern for accommodation, and food – will note shortcomings. The purpose-built, high-altitude resorts of the 1960s and 70s are undeniably convenient, with their ski-in, ski-out apartment blocks; but the accommodation is often uncomfortably mean. I once stayed in a six-person apartment in Avoriaz which felt very cramped. I was there on my own. The ski-out facility was most welcome, the ski-in less so.
This problem has been mitigated by the recent, far more roomy lodge-style apartments erected by the MGM company and others, and by an initiative in some purpose-built resorts to induce owners to allow their original rabbit-hutches to be knocked together, replacing two tiny apartments with one that is reasonably sized.
Skiers who prefer to stay in hotels are much better served. When, this year, the official French hotel-rating system re-introduced five-star status (since the 1960s four stars was the maximum a hotel could have), the list of the first 26 properties to get the award included six in Courchevel.
Other quibbles? The French Alps still offer more than their fair share of gastronomic pleasures, but the classic brasseries, with simple food priced to suit skiers rather than gourmands, seem to have gone missing. Service with a smile is on the way out; and the dear old "snow train" from the Channel coast to the Alps has left the rails (a lacuna which the admirable Snowcarbon trains-to-the-resorts website at least partly fills). But set alongside those superb mountains, these are very minor flaws. Despite the slight shift of the UK market towards Austria, more than one in three UK skiers chooses to go to France. We may be important to the big French resorts, but they are even more important to us.
Travel essentials: Ski France
eurostar.com; 08705 186 186
mgmfrenchproperties.com; 020-7494 0706
tourisme-metabief.com; 00 33 3 81 49 13 81
massif-des-vosges.com; 00 33 3 29 82 45 03
lelioran.com; 00 33 4 71 49 50 08
les3vallees.com; 00 33 4 79 08 00 29
serre-chevalier.com; 00 33 4 92 24 98 98
alpedhuez.com; 00 33 4 76 11 44 44
paradiski.com; 00 33 4 79 07 12 57
espacekilly.com; 00 33 4 79 06 06 60
portesdusoleil.com; 00 33 4 50 73 32 54
Tourist Office: 09068 244 123 (calls 60p/min); uk.franceguide.com