Ski industry predicts boom as cold sets in

Early snowfall on Europe's slopes points to bumper season for Alpine resorts
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The Independent Travel

Clad in salopettes and woolly hats, skiers swished effortlessly downhill yesterday as nervous beginners concentrated hard on their snow-ploughs. OK, so this was a dry slope in Sheffield, but dozens of those on the artificial piste are gearing up for the real thing and booking pre-Christmas breaks to the Continent and North America.

Because snow is already falling, Europe, the US and Canada are experiencing colder weather than the seasonal norm. That means two things for Britain's 1.3 million ski enthusiasts: the prospect of early trips to the slopes, and the promise of a longer season.

Several resorts, particularly those at higher altitudes, are already open for business. Obergurgl in Austria, for example, is reporting "excellent snow and piste condition" with 45km (28 miles) of skiable slopes. And in the north-eastern US, the relatively low-lying Okemo Mountain in Vermont is planning to open next weekend.

Betony Garner, of the Ski Club of Great Britain, which runs a website detailing the state of resorts around the world, said: "There's been quite a lot of snow this year so far and it's come earlier than normal, which is good as it is putting down a base for the rest of the season. Quite a few resorts are just starting to open, some opened on Saturday and today and others will open this weekend. But most people won't go until the first week in December, unless they are really keen, of course."

At Sheffield Ski Village, instructor Robin Edwards surveyed some of the several hundred people who took to the slopes yesterday and said: "We're certainly very busy. We are doing a lot better this year than we were last year at the same time. A lot of people are coming up specifically to learn or practice because they are going to go skiing."

Michael Bennett of the tour operator Ski Independence said there was a "fairly positive picture", judging by early bookings. "There are a lot of resorts that are skiing early and skiing well," he said. "We're looking forward to this season being a fairly big one for us. The feeling is this year is going to be a colder one than we've seen recently; certainly it feels colder in the UK."

Mr Bennett said skiers appeared to be largely ignoring any concerns about the financial crisis, with bookings so far behind last year's "stellar" season but ahead of the previous one. "If people go on an annual skiing holiday, it becomes very much like a pilgrimage," he said. "Skiing is almost more of a need than a want once people get into the habit."

In 2000-01, some 1.1 million people from the UK went on skiing holidays independently or with a tour operator, a figure which has increased every year to 1.35 million last season. At Okemo Mountain, Bonnie MacPherson said they were hoping to attract some of those when they open this weekend. They had considered opening on Saturday with reasonable conditions on the higher slopes, but decided to wait a week for further forecasted snow which should enable a longer run.

"We do expect to have a good season," she said. "We have a lot of British fans. They'll generally fly to Boston and then hire a car to drive up. They love Boston. It's a shorter air trip than to the west coast [of the US] and, as opposed to Europe, we queue up very nicely over here."

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