Snow Report: Save the pound. Go skiing on the Scottish slopes
Sunday 20 December 2009
This time last winter the ski industry was in meltdown. After a decade of growth, the economic downturn, coupled with the collapse of the pound, left tour operators with serious over-capacity. But we're told there'll be no repeat of the resulting mega-deals this winter, which included the first Bogof (buy one get one free) ski holidays. Companies have cut back on availability and, anyway, most have been offering discounts since last spring.
Late bookers can still find good deals, though, even over the peak New Year and February half-term dates. "Discounts are available on selected dates but these discounts are not as deep as this time last year," said Nigel Oldham of Ski Beat (01243 780405; skibeat.co.uk ), who has a reputation for telling it how it is.
"Fresh snow in the Alps has led to a huge increase in booking and not just for late deals," he said. "January is selling fast with 2 January departures 92 per cent sold; 9 January 75 per cent sold, and even 16 January 60 per cent sold. Half-term flights are sold out and just a few chalets remain for self-drive arrivals."
So, with the pound still weak, and the Copenhagen climate talks in the news, could this be the winter for more Brits to behave like Americans and ski closer to home? Back in the Seventies, up to 650,000 of us used to ski in Scotland, but in recent years that figure has been nearer 150,000. What's changed?
Well, in Scotland, not a lot, and that's part of the problem. Cairngorm (01479 861261; cairngormmountain.co.uk), above Aviemore, has a modern funicular railway, and Nevis Range (01397 705825; nevisrange.co.uk), near Fort William, has a gondola. But most of the rest of the mountain uplift at Scottish centres is archaic and the shoestring budgets make it hard for centres to compete with the Alps, despite the heroic efforts of their dedicated staff.
Snow cover is usually less dependable, too, although the past two winters were largely good and this season the ski lifts started running in late November, keeping spirits high.
By contrast, Europe's resorts have become easier to reach through better air links or faster motorways (road and rail links from London to the French Alps are better and faster than those to the closer Scottish Highlands), and the resorts have constantly upgraded their facilities.
But, thanks largely to booming summer tourism, there are top-quality leisure facilities in the Highlands now. The list of activities on offer if the skiing isn't great now rivals the better-known brochure resorts. In Aviemore, for example, you're close to Loch Ness, whisky distilleries, Balmoral, steam trains and a wildlife park that recently took delivery of its first polar bear (01540 651270 ; highlandwildlifepark.org).
The best news is that the pound buys you as much here as it ever did. New this winter is a five-day ski pass for £115 that's valid across the five Scottish ski areas – about a third less than an equivalent pass in the Alps.
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