There was a time when budget ski destinations were easy to identify, even without looking at the prices. Location in a country in the former Eastern bloc was a key indicator; an outdated lift system consisting of a network of drag-lifts and a few slow-moving, two-seater chairlifts was another giveaway. A resort clearly revealed its place in the market when the hotels lacked architectural distinction (or even anything that could fairly be termed architecture), served buffet-only meals and covered their lobby walls with information on the movements of the local reps of mass-market tour operators. A main street lined with thickset men trying to lure passers-by into the bars told the same story.
Recently, though, the picture has lost its clarity. Andorra was once the playground of the impecunious, lager-loving youth of Britain, a place with hotels which – at Pas de la Casa – suggested a skiers' shanty town. But half a dozen years ago the principality decided to create a new, up-market image for itself, to attract a freer-spending clientele. And in Bulgaria, formerly the epitome of the budget destination, the most recent resort of Bansko confounded the image created by Pamporovo and Borovets with its modern lifts and its five-star Kempinski hotel at the lift base. The fact that until recently the cheapest ski holiday in the Thomson brochure was in France is another example of the same phenomenon, seen as it were from the other end of the telescope – although it must be said that the holiday accommodation was in a caravan park, near La Clusaz.
This season, the issue of what constitutes a budget destination has been further clouded by the budget ski packages introduced by Crystal and – to a lesser extent – Inghams. The response of both operators to the effect of the credit crunch upon the ski market was to offer low-cost holidays including not just the usual package of transportation and accommodation but also a lift pass and equipment rental.
The "Crystal Ski Plus" prices started at a remarkable £479 per person per week. But the holidays offered were not in eastern Europe, and not in small, out-of-the-way resorts. The first group of destinations were all in France. And the bulk of the holidays were in Les Arcs and La Plagne, the two resorts in the Tarentaise whose linked ski area, called Paradiski, is the biggest in the world. It has probably the best intermediate skiing in the French Alps, plenty of expert terrain on- and off-piste, and good runs for entry-level skiers.
How does the cost of these holidays compare with those in the traditional budget destinations? Very favourably. In the same 2009/10 brochure which launched Crystal Ski Plus, a holiday in Andorra, at the resort of Arinsal, costs £140 less than its equivalent in Les Arcs. However, when you add in all the extras included in the Ski Plus package (using the lift-pass and equipment-rental prices quoted in the Crystal brochure) the Andorran holiday costs £68 more. An equivalent holiday in the Bulgarian resort of Pamporovo, including all the extras, is £29 more expensive; and there is simply no comparison between its ski area and Paradiski.
Among the traditional budget destinations, Andorra has by far the most interesting story. In the 2002/3 season the tiny principality (one-50th the size of the more familiar principality of Wales) accounted for an astonishing 14 per cent of the British market, having grown in popularity over a dozen years to the point where it attracted more UK skiers than Switzerland and North America put together.
Its success was based on three pillars: low prices (thanks, in part, to its tax-free status); continuing investment in the lift systems; and a policy of hiring native English-speakers for the national ski school, which was effectively split into two more-or-less equal parts, one of them completely English-speaking. There were long-term difficulties with the integration of the different ski areas; but once that had been achieved, the rich, former farming families who control the skiing co-operated with each other on a strategy to move Andorra up-market. With a couple of large, linked ski areas, a sensational five-star hotel (opened in 2006), and strict planning controls designed to improve architectural standards, they figured that Andorran skiing warranted a better class of customer.
As far as the UK market is concerned, the strategy has been disastrous. The problem with the principality's image was that a location traditionally regarded as a budget destination can't suddenly charge French prices – a view that, a spokesman for Andorra was eager to tell me, was particular to the UK. In other national markets such as the US and Israel (Andorra draws up to 4,000 skiers in a season from the latter) there wasn't the same perception. But he admitted that with Andorra's share of the UK market down to about 3 per cent, something had to be done to arrest the slide.
An improved national tourism set-up is tasked with getting the share back up to at least 5 per cent. "We can't do that quickly," the spokesman told me, "but maybe it's possible in a couple of years." To get results as soon as possible, the strategy involves offering "assistance" (primarily with discounts) to tour operators, because they can deliver UK skiers in bulk. The plan ought to work. Andorra is no longer as cheap as it once was; but with all the improvements made in recent years it offers extremely good value for money.
Although Andorra may prove to be an exception in the next few years, the general rule is that you get what you pay for in a ski destination. Compare holidays in hotels in the same category and you will find that the price in Bulgaria is a little lower than, say, in Slovenia, which is in turn a little cheaper than, say, Andorra. But, proportionately, there is a much bigger difference in the cost of lift passes. For a week on the slopes of the Andorran resort of Arinsal you'll pay about twice as much as you would in Pamporovo. Does that make it expensive? No, because a glance at the piste map reveals that you also get at least twice as much skiing. By that criterion, of pistes-per-pound, Slovenia might not seem to offer great value. But come dinner-time, skiers are better off in Slovenia than in other budget destinations.
The remaining traditional budget destinations for UK skiers is Romania. I have never skied it; but a friend of mine – a senior manager in the UK ski business – rates Romania highly, describing the main resort of Poiana Brasov as "a reasonably priced purpose-built resort with modern lifts set in a beautiful bowl", adding that "the standard of skiing tuition is extremely high". Poiana Brasov is in the Neilson brochure for this season; the prices quoted range from £549 to £899 per person per week, but they include a lift pass, equipment rental and ski or snowboarding tuition.
Also on offer this season from one of the big tour operators, Inghams, is a new budget destination: Slovakia. I had planned to visit it last month, but a lack of snow delayed the opening of the resorts in the Tatra mountains, and my trip was cancelled. In advance of my rescheduled visit, in March, all I can tell you about it is that the Inghams holidays there cost from £459 to £837 in four-star hotels. Maybe "good-value destination" is the correct description. We shall see.