The 2008-9 ski season has been properly under way for a month, and it appears that projections of economic doom are thankfully not coming true. The world's largest ski-resort operator, the French Compagnie des Alps, has reported that sales were actually up 2.4 per cent over the crucial Christmas/New Year period.
Massive pre-season snowfall – perfectly timed in late November and early December for the Pyrenees and Alps, and more recently in the Rockies – has brought excellent conditions to almost all of the world's leading ski areas. The best now boast 17ft-deep accumulations at the top. Many of the ski industry's pundits had already predicted that it was snow cover, rather than the economy, that would be the biggest factor in this season's success or failure.
Although the huge falls have set up most of the world's ski areas for a good, long season, British winter-sports enthusiasts face a hard time. The next half-term is, for most schools, the week beginning 14 February, rather than spread through the month; at least one operator describes this week as "booked solid". The fact that there is plenty of availability on either side is of little comfort to families.
The weakness of sterling, as well as general economic uncertainty, seem to be dissuading some – although anyone concerned by such issues can book almost all of their holiday direct through a tour operator at prices that were fixed before the pound slipped. As a result, according to Lynsey Devon of Inghams, there are currently some spectacular bargains to be had and late bookings (see page VIII) are booming:
"Last weekend, for departures on 3 and 4 January, we sold a high percentage of holidays in the week right before departure. This indicates that the business is out there but that people wanted to get Christmas out the way before they committed, and are booking very last minute and being driven by price."
The specialist travel agency Ski Solutions carried out a survey comparing prices for a range of catered chalets in major Swiss and French resorts and found that rates are cheaper this year than last by up to £110. The company recommends that clients looking for a bargain and wanting to cushion themselves from euro price increases should consider booking a late-deal package to a chalet on full board. You should also book your ski hire online before you go, and save up to 40 per cent on the resort price.
The huge snowfalls have been seized on by those on both sides of the global-warming debate.
The weekly world snow news digest from snow reporting service skiinfo.com has been claimed by some to offer proof that global warming is a myth, while the huge deluges that have cut off villages, stopped Swiss trains and closed airports are taken by others as examples of the increasing weather extremes caused by climate change induced by man's activities.
Whatever the causes, the heavy snow has led to dozens of avalanche deaths already on each side of the Atlantic. The majority of victims are people who had sadly failed to heed advice and headed off piste. However, in the North American resorts of Jackson Hole and Whistler, incidents occurred within the patrolled terrain. Jackson Hole decided to close its ski slopes briefly in late December due to the excess of snow, after an avalanche damaged a mountain restaurant there.
The next big event in the ski season calendar is the bi-annual Alpine Ski World Championships, staged this year in Val d'Isère and run for two weeks from 2 February. Anticipation is high, as this is the first staging of the Championships in France since 1962. There is also a new course layout, with the men's and women's courses set facing each other. There's three to six feet of snow on the ground already – it looks set to be a great event.
Inghams: 020-8780 4444; inghams.co.uk
Ski Solutions: 020-7471 7700; skisolutions.com
Val d'Isere: 00 33 4 79 06 06 60; valdisere.com