France still lures British skiers

Our love affair with French skiing continues, but the smaller resorts benefited most from last year's bumper season

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

Getting there

eurostar.com; 08705 186 186

snowcarbon.co.uk

Staying there

mgmfrenchproperties.com; 020-7494 0706

More information

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

French Government

Tourist Office: 09068 244 123 (calls 60p/min); uk.franceguide.com

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
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: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links