Little wonder

Tiny Andorra may punch above its weight when it comes to attracting skiers but, says Stephen Wood, Italy and Switzerland have the looks and the charm
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The Independent Travel

Nothing lasts forever, as Arsenal supporters and Boston Red Sox fans have discovered. Southwest Airlines' winning streak - increasing its profits every quarter for more than 13 years - might look unstoppable at the moment, but one day it will surely end, an occurrence that will then seem far more extraordinary than the perennial efforts of its rival North American airlines to stave off bankruptcy. In the premier league of UK ski destinations, it was Andorra whose run of success looked set to continue indefinitely - until the 2003/4 season.

Nothing lasts forever, as Arsenal supporters and Boston Red Sox fans have discovered. Southwest Airlines' winning streak - increasing its profits every quarter for more than 13 years - might look unstoppable at the moment, but one day it will surely end, an occurrence that will then seem far more extraordinary than the perennial efforts of its rival North American airlines to stave off bankruptcy. In the premier league of UK ski destinations, it was Andorra whose run of success looked set to continue indefinitely - until the 2003/4 season.

A tiny, 450 sq km principality in the Pyrenees, Andorra doesn't seem equipped to compete with the big boys: it has just 7,224 skiable acres, just one-third the size of the Trois Vallées. Yet for a dozen or more years in a row Andorra increased its share of the UK ski market, and by 2002/3 more than 14 per cent of British skiers were taking holidays there (according to the annual Ski Industry Report published by the tour operator Crystal). Having already attracted more skiers than Switzerland and North America combined, Andorra had Italy in its sights, and seemed set to replace it as the third most popular ski destination for Britons.

In recent years the geographical spread of the UK skiing market has been stable. France, way out in front of the other destinations, attracts about a third of British skiers. Austria has maintained a share of just under 20 per cent; Italy - slightly more volatile - takes 15-16 per cent; and Switzerland is stuck at about five per cent. The status quo has been disturbed by North America's steady decline since 2000 to less than six per cent. The other country failing to respect the established hierarchy is Andorra, with its steady but powerful growth.

Until now Andorra relied upon three selling points. First, low prices: ski holidays were never quite as cheap as in Eastern Europe, but it was a close thing. The nightlife, fuelled by alcoholic drinks at bargain prices in what is a tax- and duty-free zone, was vibrant. And thirdly the principality acquired a reputation for good skiing and snowboarding tuition by instructors from English-speaking countries. These factors made Andorra appealing to young, budget-conscious beginners.

The first sign of a change in its marketing strategy improved the principality's image. This time last year a senior executive in the UK ski business told me that the image of Andorra - based on the crammed, chaotic party town of Pas de la Casa, which has enough beds (11,000) to accommodate every native Andorran - lived on in the popular imagination although it no longer reflected reality. Its hotels were moving up-market, and the Andorran government (which has worked closely with the local tourist business ever since the first ski lift was built in 1957) was making strenuous efforts to improve the principality's resorts.

Over the last year there have also been swift, though rather belated, improvements in the skiing environment. For 2003/4 the resorts of Pas de la Casa-Gran Roig and Soldeu el Tarter offered a joint lift pass for their linked ski area, Granvalira; this season a new, "hands-free" pass has been introduced, with scanners in place at all the lifts. The other ski areas, including Pal-Arinsal, have now also grouped together, with a common "Vallnord" pass. Also available is a five-day, €140-153 (£100-110) pass for principality-wide skiing (although its width is no more than 30km).

These changes are all part of a strategy to attract a more up-market, free-spending clientele to Andorra. Focusing on the quality of guests rather than just quantity was bound to compromise Andorra's "extraordinary value". With the benefit of hindsight the dip in its share of the UK market in 2003/4 is not so remarkable, and already the most budget-conscious skiers are being steered towards Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia by tour operators.

Andorra's ambition is understandable, and from what I have seen the improvements are impressive. But will British skiers develop the same romantic attachment to Andorra that they have to France, Austria and North America? In other words, can it compete when it is not competing on price? I have my doubts. The sheer efficiency of Andorra may be remarkable: the skiing is good (if largely intermediate), the snowfall is surprisingly reliable for its altitude, and its resorts have extensive snow-making capabilities. The charm of Andorra remains somewhat elusive, however; indeed there is a certain grimness in winter to the Pyrenean valleys.

Italy, whose market share Andorra came so close to eclipsing, has few problems in that respect. In the Dolomites it has probably the world's most beautiful mountains in winter, when snow collects in the crevices of their heavily striated faces. The light reflected by the snow gives the mountains extraordinary depth and drama, yet even though almost one in six of us chooses to ski there, Italy has never properly established itself with British skiers. It is a secondary destination, popular when holidays there are cheap, shunned when poor snowfall revives fears about the reliability of its conditions. There is a concern, too, that Italian resorts do not invest sufficiently in their lift systems, though this is less true than it used to be. One also has to be critical of a system of tourism promotion that relies on small, regional marketing budgets, which result in Italy having almost no image as a ski destination among the general public in Britain.

If it had the means and the resolve to do so, what should Italy be promoting apart from its superb mountain scenery? Some great skiing, for a start. Cortina - the country's sole blue-chip resort - may not have the world's best lift system, but it does have some of its most beautiful skiing, particularly on the "hidden valley" down from the Passo Falzarego cable-car. (At the bottom, a horse-powered drag-lift takes you to the nearest lift base.) And the Sella Ronda, also in the Dolomites, is an absolute treat - a great loop of clockwise or anti-clockwise skiing around the soaring Gruppo Sella mountains. Italy has pleasant mountain towns and villages, too, most notably Courmayeur.

The food is also the best in the Alps. Italian resorts rely mainly on local skiers, and Italians - whose diet is conservative and simple, based on good ingredients - have no difficulty in differentiating between good and bad restaurants. So as a rule only the good survive. The heavy Italian presence provides a further benefit to visiting Britons: the slopes may get crowded at weekends but they are quiet on weekdays. Finally, perhaps because they don't have the same throughput of foreigners as those in France, Austria and Switzerland, the Italians often seem more welcoming than those in other Alpine areas.

The Swiss welcome tends to be cooler and more professional. Switzerland is, after all, the place where hotel management and hospitality skills have been developed to their highest levels, in the country's hotel academies. Switzerland was also the original winter holiday destination for 19th-century Britons and the cradle (if not the birthplace) of skiing. That makes it all the more remarkable that the country now attracts only five per cent of British skiers: one would have expected long-established resorts such as Wengen and Mürren, St Moritz and Davos - and, most of all, Zermatt - to exert a more powerful grip on the imagination of the average British skier.

Unfortunately, the perception of Switzerland as expensive is unshakeable. Last month Dave Watts, co-editor of the Where to Ski and Snowboard guide told me that ski-resort property is commonly better value in Switzerland than in France. I was surprised - and surprised again when he reminded me of the fact only a couple of days later. My prejudice was more powerful than my memory.

But if Switzerland is more expensive than other ski destinations ( Where to Ski and Snowboard claims Zermatt's lift pass is the most expensive in Europe) that doesn't mean it isn't good value. After all, car-buyers don't reject BMWs simply on the basis that they are more expensive than Fords. After a century of experience the Swiss know how to do ski holidays. Take for example Saas-Fee near Zermatt - in the charming, traffic-free village there are still wooden barns perched on traditional mushroom-shaped piles of stones to keep out rodents, and beneath the slopes is a train that carries skiers under a glacier and up the mountain to a revolving restaurant.

It is true that high-mileage skiers hooked on France's massive ski area might find that Switzerland doesn't suit them (although the Portes du Soleil area, mainly in France, does straddle the Swiss border), but those with a broader outlook are likely to take a different view.

Where will you find the first, fabulous designer youth hostel? In Switzerland, at Davos. Where else is the selection of excellent hotels so wide, ranging from the oh-so-civilised Steigenberger Belvedere in Davos to the charmingly crazy Misani near St Moritz? Nowhere else. Which country can compete with Switzerland's classic mountain views of the Matterhorn, Eiger and Jungfrau, the superb family-run restaurants such as Chez Vrony on the Sunnegga slopes of Zermatt, and the extraordinary railway system? No other country. Memo to the 95 per cent of skiers who don't go there: Switzerland is not to be ignored.

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