France? Huge, linked ski areas at snow-sure altitudes with ski-in/ski-out accommodation. Austria? Old-style skiing with charming mountain villages and excellent, family-run hotels. North America? Relaxed skiing on uncrowded slopes where everyone speaks English.
The appeal of the two destinations most visited by UK skiers - and a third which would be equally popular were it not an ocean away - is easy to summarise and hard to resist. Altogether, the three countries account for more than 61 per cent of the UK ski market, according to the 2003 edition of the annual industry report produced by the Specialist Holidays Group (SHG), which includes the ski operations of Crystal, Thomson and Simply Travel.
But what of the other three major destinations, each of whose market share exceeds five per cent? What is it that draws skiers to Italy, Andorra and Switzerland?
Gareth Crump, the product director for SHG, makes the following case for Italy, which last season saw its market share edge up to almost 16 per cent. "Value-for-money holidays is one big attraction: the cost of living in Italy is lower than in other Alpine resorts. Another is the breathtaking scenery of the Dolomites, and the party-town atmosphere of places such as Sauze d'Oulx. And then there's the friendly welcome skiers get in Italy."
It is hard to argue with any of that, particularly his description of the Dolomites: shamefully late in life I went to Cortina for the first time in winter last season, and found it to have the most beautiful ski area I have seen, by a wide margin. But Crump must have forgotten the food. On these pages I have often moaned about French ski-resort restaurants, but never about Italy's. Italian cuisine is simple, and relies on good ingredients. Conservative about their food (as they are about many other things), Italians can easily tell good from bad; and since they make up the bulk of skiers in Italy's resorts, bad restaurants do not survive there.
Even the most basic, white-tablecloth establishments - sometimes without even a menu - serve excellent food, so it is hardly worth picking out restaurants in individual resorts. But it would be churlish not to mention two in Cortina: the implausibly romantic Lago Ghedina restaurant off the Socrepes area, and the Rifugio Averau, a single-seater chairlift ride plus a rope-tow above the Cinque Torri, where lunch on the terrace on a sunny day is an unforgettable treat.
In the recent past, Italy has had a chequered snow record and the country has been slow to invest in snow-making. But last season saw plenty of snow and as a result SHG's sales there are more than 10 per cent ahead of those at this time last year, Crump reports.
Andorra grew rapidly in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, its "cheap and cheerful" image appealing to beginners and skiers on a budget. Last season the growth rate flattened, despite recent improvements to the resorts. "People are staggered when they go there," says Crump, "because although it still has that old image, a great job has been done to make Andorran resorts more attractive. It's the best example in any ski destination of what can be done when hoteliers and the local authorities work together with a common purpose."
Already keenly priced, Andorra now offers "extraordinary value for money", Crump says, particularly in the family hotels of Soldeu and El Tarter. Still blighted by its 1970s hotel blocks, Pas de la Casa is not pretty; but it is a great party town, reckons Crump, "and highly unsuitable for anyone who wants a quiet holiday".
Suggest that Andorra's skiing is all easy stuff, and Crump disagrees: "It's not hardcore skiing, but it's better than people think," he says. "The emphasis on the beginners' and intermediates' terrain arises from the fact that that's what the bulk of the clientele is looking for. I'd say that good skiers would certainly enjoy themselves when accompanying intermediates on the slopes."
The announcement of the new, 2003/4 joint lift-pass for the Pas de la Casa and Soldeu ski areas - finally rationalising what the Where to Ski and Snowboard Guide has described as "the biggest nonsense in the ski world" - has come too late to affect Andorra's bookings with SHG for this season. Crump says they are running at the same level as last year. But he expects the new pass, which gives access to 192km of pistes, to have an impact in 2004/5.
Finally, Crump remains enthusiastic about Switzerland, even though it saw the sharpest decline of any major ski destination last year and now has less than six per cent of the UK market. "Switzerland has a long tradition of excellence," he says. "The country has had so many hotel schools for so many years that you can rely on having a good holiday there: it's more than just a ski trip. The professionalism means that everything works. There are fantastic mountain villages. And you've got to see the Matterhorn once in your life.
"Switzerland's problem is the perception that it's expensive. True, the ticket price can be high - but so is the quality of the experience. You do get value for money there."
With St Moritz, Zermatt, Davos, Crans-Montana, Wengen and Mürren, Switzerland has more landmark resorts than any other Alpine country. It has some extraordinary hotels, from the superlative, five-star Steigenberger Belvedere in Davos to the sleek Saratz and the surprising Misani, both "design hotels" near St Moritz.
The mountain views - from Zermatt to the Matterhorn, from Wengen to the Eiger and the Jungfrau, from Saas Fee's revolving Mittelallalin restaurant to the surrounding peaks - are exquisite. And the skiing is great, particularly at Zermatt and Saas Fee, although Crump makes the point that "some ski-area links are inefficient compared to those in France".
So far, Switzerland's bookings are stuck at the 2002/3 level, Crump reports. This time last year he was expecting Switzerland "to come back a bit". It did not happen then; and unfortunately it still is not happening.Reuse content