Skiing, la belle France: for purists only

The prices are horrific, the hospitality worse, yet one in three skiers chose to go French last year. The skiing must be good, n'est-ce pas?

The senior figures from the British ski business who gathered for lunch in the ballroom of the French ambassador's residence, near Kensington Palace, last week had a lot on their minds as they tucked into the delicacies provided by three chefs flown in from the Alps for the occasion. With anxiety levels high about the coming season, all the major tour operators are struggling to find a strategy - usually a combination of attack (price cuts) and defence (capacity reductions) - that might tip the balance of their shaky profit-and-loss projections.

The senior figures from the British ski business who gathered for lunch in the ballroom of the French ambassador's residence, near Kensington Palace, last week had a lot on their minds as they tucked into the delicacies provided by three chefs flown in from the Alps for the occasion. With anxiety levels high about the coming season, all the major tour operators are struggling to find a strategy - usually a combination of attack (price cuts) and defence (capacity reductions) - that might tip the balance of their shaky profit-and-loss projections.

But amid the uncertainty, most of them remain convinced of one thing, and that was enough to get them out of the office, forsaking their sea of troubles for a plate of truffles, courtesy of the French government tourist office. Even if (as one senior manager whispered to me over the cheese board) France will have to be wary in future of a resurgent Austria, the big six operators are confident that this season the country will maintain its dominant position in the British ski market.

Last season, almost one in three of all British skiers who travelled with a major tour operator chose to go to France. Since a dip in the mid-1990s, when it lost market share to Italy (whose cheap lira provided a competitive edge), France has steadily asserted itself as our premier destination. First Choice, for example, expects it to generate 30 per cent of the British tour operators' business this season. Factor in the preference for French resorts among the growing number of skiers travelling independently - they made up almost 25 per cent of last year's market - and France looks set to do well from a season which, overall, is predicted to show a fall of 10 per cent from 1998/9 figures.

What's the big attraction? Put it like this: if you were creating the perfect ski area, you would probably want the same mountains and ski-lift system as in the French Alps, plus the same proximity to Britain. True, you might also impose price controls in the bars and restaurants, redesign a few of the purpose-built resorts with low-rise, pitched-roof buildings and introduce fines for anti-social behaviour in lift queues; otherwise it would be hard to improve on the French model.

The mountains are spectacular - the views from the Grande Motte at Tignes and, at Flaine, across the valley to the Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc are hard to beat - and many are high enough, with ski areas climbing well beyond 3,000 metres, to provide snow-sure skiing in late season, a particularly significant factor next year with Easter falling towards the end of April. The skiing is immensely varied, the best of the country's 319 resorts combining excitingly difficult pistes, characteristically smooth, cruising runs and easy terrain for beginners. It is also very extensive, notably in the loop of interconnected resorts at the Portes du Soleil and the huge ski areas of Espace Killy and the Trois Vallées - to be matched next year when the long-planned link between the ski areas of Les Arcs and La Plagne will finally be realised, providing access to a total of 186 lifts and 400km of pistes.

Many of the French resorts were created in the last 30 years, and some bear more resemblance to Croydon town centre than an Alpine village; but what they lack in character they make up for in convenience, particularly with ski-in, ski-out access. That's attractive for families; so is the continuing "Kids Ski Free" promotion, which offers free off-peak accommodation, lift pass and equipment to accompanied children aged nine or under in more than a dozen resorts, among them Les Arcs and La Plagne.

Finally - a huge plus - French ski slopes are serviced by what is probably the most sophisticated and extensive lift system in the world. This season sees the usual long list of improvements, with new or improved lifts at Les Arcs, La Clusaz, Courchevel, Flaine and Tignes and the installation in the Portes du Soleil area of a "hands-free" system that scans lift passes electronically without the need to offer them up to a machine.

Other local service industries don't reach the same heights. The run-of-the-mill restaurants and bars in ski resorts are making a concerted effort to undermine France's culinary reputation: and even with an exchange rate currently at almost FF10 to the pound, you can end up paying through the nose for food you regret putting in your mouth. Connoisseurs of aprÿs-ski (of which I am not one) report that, except in Val d'Isÿre and Méribel, the nights are growing longer and darker in the French Alps. The reputation of the official French ski schools - never very high - has also suffered recently, suspicions of a "the customer comes last" philosophy seemingly confirmed by their attitude towards British-trained ski instructors in a dispute over qualifications which, at least for now, appears to have been settled.

But this is nit-picking. France is the most popular destination among British skiers (and Val d'Isÿre the most popular single resort) simply because it is the best place to ski. You might prefer the service in North America, the food in Italy, the ski school in Andorra and the ambience in Austria; but you can't argue with those mountains.

 

For further information about the 'Kids Ski Free', contact: French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0906 82 44 123, calls are 60p per min; e-mail: info@mdlf.co.uk). The centre hosts Ski France Month throughout October, 10am-6pm Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat

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