Peak Performance: News from the slopes

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The Independent Travel

The 2006-07 season kicked off on the glacier at French resort Tignes on 30 September, while heavy September snowfall on Colorado's peaks allowed Silverton Mountain to open with several feet of natural snow. But most of us are still deciding where to head this winter, and tour operators have plenty of ideas to try to sustain the growth in British winter sports travellers, which reached 1.15 million last season.

The new country choice this year is Japan. The domestic market there peaked at more than 20 million skiers in the early Nineties, but an economic downturn has seen the Japanese skiing population drop by half. The upside for Australians, Americans and now Europeans is high-value ski holidays.

The resorts of Rusutsu and Niseko are famed for their deep powder skiing on extinct volcanoes. Holidays begin at £995 with Inghams, which gives the option to add a few days in Tokyo or Kyoto. Crystal has the same resorts, without the city stopover.

For a taste of Japan before booking, visit the World Resort Village at the new format Metro Ski and Snowboard Show at London's Olympia, 18-22 October. Here you can try sushi with a Geisha and be tempted by other exotic ski destinations, such as Chile, as well as the more familiar.

Lebanon, alas, will not be represented. It can trace its ski heritage back for the best part of a century and had made it into a British brochure (for Crystal) for the first time this winter. But the aftermath of the recent conflict with Israel has led to the postponement of British ski tours there.

"As soon as the Foreign Office lifts the ban, we will evaluate the situation and decide. We are very positive that skiing in Lebanon will be back on sale in the future," said Crystal spokeswoman Marion Telsnig.

Specialist travel operator Ski Lebanon is still organising independent travel and says resorts are already getting booked up for New Year.

The biggest single ski area upgrade anywhere this winter is at Europe's highest, the Swiss-Italian ski area Zermatt. Six new lifts will be added along with more snow making.

In Europe, France looks set to hold its position as the most popular British destination, with about 40 per cent of the market. However, Bulgaria and Finland appear likely to further increase their market share. New Finnish destinations for the market leaders mean there is now a total of 10 resorts in the frozen north to choose from. Most are small and marketed for high-value adventure activities, such as snowmobiling and sledding, but Saariselkä, pioneered by Headwater Holidays and now offered by Inghams, boasts the biggest terrain park in the country, covering most of the ski area.

Crystal has relaunched its schools brochure with an emphasis on experience as much as destination. Trips are organised worldwide, but the Finland Arctic Adventure week is typical. It provides Arctic survival skills, ice fishing, igloo building, a reindeer farm visit, husky rides and much more.

Balkan Holidays reported a 35 per cent increase of Brits visiting Bulgarian resorts last winter, citing new infrastructure and hotels as the attraction. "We are ecstatic that the world is recognising the amazing snow, fantastic accommodation and warm people of Bulgaria," said Tseko Minev of the Bulgarian Ski Federation.

Also in Eastern Europe, Slovenian resorts saw a nine per cent jump in visits last season, and when it enters the euro currency zone on 1 January, it will be even easier to see how much cheaper lift tickets are than in the Western Alps. No wonder some Italian resorts have announced a price freeze, Livigno among them. Market growth will be aided by online operator Directski.com's decision to add Slovenia to its list.

In North America, the good news is the conversion of a dozen or so leading resorts to wind-power, the majority of them in Colorado. After Aspen decided to go "all-renewable", Vail Resorts announced that all their lifts and other facilities would be windpowered. A number of other resorts have followed suit.

Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114, www.balkanholidays.co.uk)

Colorado (001 30 38 37 07 93, www.coloradoski.com)

Crystal (0870 160 6040, www.crystalholidays.co.uk)

Directski (0800 587 0945, www.directski.com)

Finland (00 35 89 22 87 83 10, www.finland.com/skicentres.do)

Japan (00 81 25 78 06 336, www.snowjapan.com)

Ski Lebanon (00 96 17 01 03 222, www.skileb.com)

Metro Ski Show (0870 5900 090; www.metroskishow.co.uk)

Slovenia (00 38 61 58 91 840, www.slovenia.info)

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