Skiing: There's till time to join the cold rush

This year's heavy snowfalls have seen Europe's ski season stretch well into April. And while West is best, resorts in the East are bending over backwards to accommodate British needs. Hamish McRae reports

It has been a great season for British skiers for that most obvious of reasons: both North America and the Alps have had great snow. The industry has also been helped by new destinations, such as Finland, Slovenia and Serbia. And it is not over - in the Rockies and the Alps, the snow base is ensuring one of the later seasons in recent history. A combination of superb conditions and tour operators working harder than ever to sell new resorts has offset a certain caution in people's spending habits.

Crystal's annual research report on the British ski market doesn't come out until summer; meanwhile, the evidence suggests that there has been a small increase in the numbers of skiers in the traditional countries - France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria - but the main growth is elsewhere.

The US has been boosted by additional direct flights to Denver, with something like a doubling of the number of British skiers in the Rockies. The snow has been brilliant, extending the season - we are off to Breckenridge this weekend - and issues such as tougher immigration requirements have done nothing to stem demand. Canada has seen a fall in UK visitors this year, despite a sharp recovery by Whistler. So the ease of getting to a resort does matter.

Other things that have helped the US have been a reasonable exchange rate, a big effort by the UK operators there and deals such as a free lift-pass offer at Copper Mountain. Tip for independent travellers: buy a ski-pass early and online, and you can often get a big reduction in the cost.

One of the most interesting things will be to see how much the transatlantic habit will grow. Once people have experienced the dry powder of the Rockies, some will lose interest in Europe. They will also want to test the more exotic North American ski-areas such as Montana's Big Sky. Should the dollar weaken against the euro, expect the transatlantic boom to gain even more legs.

In the Alpine resorts there has been a lot of work to increase the British market, particularly in France. The general impression, however, is that some tour operators are finding things pretty flat. But Nina MacMaster of Neilson reckons that although the figures appear a bit down, "Overall there may have actually been a slight increase year-on-year - possibly with many people taking second or even third ski trips but not full weekend-to-weekend breaks."

The real boom for ski operators has been in the "new" market. Neilson notes the success of Bansko in Bulgaria, where many Brits are buying apartments in anticipation of the country's entry into the EU. You have to realise that for a lot of people, skiing is not just about fun: it is also about investment... or maybe the investment is part of the fun. First Choice has had success with Bulgaria and also Serbia, where Kopaonik was featured on the BBC early in January and then sold out for the rest of the season.

Aside from value, there are three powerful reasons why Eastern European resorts will boom, maybe at the expense of the established Alpine ones. One is that Eastern Europe gets people into skiing in a low-risk way; a family will have a good holiday at a very reasonable price. Another is that these countries will work hard with the tour operators to adapt their product to British needs. Small, hitherto unknown places can get into a huge market in a way they could not hope to do without the ski-specialists. And finally British people want to go somewhere new, particularly if somebody else has done the legwork of organising it.

Another intriguing new area is Finland. Crystal has introduced three resorts in the Arctic Circle: Ruka, Pyha and Iso-Syote, offering activities from learning to drive a reindeer sledge, husky safaris and wilderness tours. The really hardy can have a day on an ice-breaker and swim among the ice floes, making the black-run rowdies look sissy. First Choice is planning more Lapland holidays, too.

But there are shadows hanging over the industry. One is the environment. The great snow this season may have pushed global warming to the back of people's minds, but no one wants to go on a holiday and feel they are damaging the planet. So I would expect much more of an effort, including projects such as carbon-offset payments.

The other shadow is danger. The Alps have had a dreadful season, with more than 50 people losing their lives in France alone. Now, it is true that most of these deaths have been among people skiing off-piste, and that part of the delight of skiing is its edge. To clamber down to the start of the Vallée Blanche at Chamonix is thrilling enough for most of us and a sight more frightening than any of the actual skiing on the run down. But the body count in the Alps this year is far worse than in a normal season; presumably, a combination of heavy snowfalls on an unusually unstable base, plus more thrill-seekers. It is glaringly obvious that the industry needs to cater for all levels of experience and skill within acceptable levels of safety.

Next year? At the top of my wish-list, aside from more attention to the environment and safety, would be for the industry to sell itself as the healthy option. The great thing about a skiing holiday is that, properly designed, it can cater for a wide variety of talent. This is supposed to be about fun. It also offers a cultural experience: how many people would go to Serbia on a regular trip? But the key thought is that this is one holiday at the end of which you are healthier than when you began - at least let's hope so.

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