Will it snow for Christmas?

Austria luxuriated in deep snow last winter while other Alpine resorts prayed for cover, so this season its bookings are up again. Preparation, as well as anticipation, is crucial, says Stephen Wood

One might expect it to be the other way around, but skiers are better at looking backwards than seeing what's up ahead. UK tour operators often point out how, six months or more after the snow has melted, skiers have near-total recall of which countries – even which resorts – had good snowfalls in the previous winter, and which did not. What they are not so good at remembering is the fact that snowfall in one season does not prove much about the next.

One might expect it to be the other way around, but skiers are better at looking backwards than seeing what's up ahead. UK tour operators often point out how, six months or more after the snow has melted, skiers have near-total recall of which countries – even which resorts – had good snowfalls in the previous winter, and which did not. What they are not so good at remembering is the fact that snowfall in one season does not prove much about the next.

Other things being equal, tour operators will respond to good snow in an area by increasing capacity there for the following season. They know demand will grow, despite the illogicality of assuming that snow is likely to return in similar quantities to where it fell a year earlier.

What this established booking pattern promises for Austria is a good 2002/03 season, at least for UK business. In mid-December last year, while most Alpine resorts were starting to panic about the poor cover, Austria's ski slopes were luxuriating in deep snow, maintained by weather cold enough to have a local radio station warning skiers of the danger of frostbite. The result: among the UK's six biggest tour operators only one, First Choice, has failed to introduce new resorts to its Austrian programme.

There are more substantial reasons why Austria looks well-placed to improve this season on its existing, 19 per cent share of the UK market. To its traditional virtues, the country is adding some smart marketing initiatives, notably in the Vorarlberg region, where Lech, Zurs and St Anton are located. Last season, most ski schools there introduced a "Learn to ski" programme for children aged five and over, guaranteeing that pupils would be able to carve a turn within three days – or get further, free lessons until they did.

That programme increased ski-school business by 25 per cent, and it continues this season – although the guarantee is now merely that the child "will be able to negotiate a nursery slope safely" within three days. (Apparently, extra lessons had to be provided for only two pupils last season, so it is not obvious why the offer should be downgraded.) And the Vorarlberg schools have another innovation for 2002/03.

The new, three-day "Comeback" classes are aimed at skiers who have taken a break from the sport, commonly because of parenthood – a group which Corri Boyle, boss of the UK's fastest-growing ski operator, Panorama, expects to become increasingly important to the ski business.

The Vorarlberg also stands to benefit from three new Ryanair flights. The Irish airline's existing Stansted-Salzburg flight offers short railway connections to Zell am See and Bad Gastein; this winter, it has added Graz, Klagenfurt and Friedrichshafen. The latter is just across the German border, within a couple of hours' drive of the Vorarlberg resorts. All winter, from 29 November to 26 April, a ski-shuttle coach will connect with the daily Ryanair service. From Klagenfurt, in the south of the country, there are transfers to the resorts in the Carinthia region, of which the best-known is Bad Kleinkirchheim.

The traditional attractions of Austrian skiing endure, of course. Its pleasant mountain villages remain, although many of them now sprawl at their edges; and some of the small, valley towns – Schladming, for example, with its stunning, onion-dome church – have more charm than all but a handful of French resorts. Most of the villages are dominated by a handful of local families, former farmers who have become successful hoteliers and who take an interest in the maintenance of their communal patrimony. Good summer business means they have funds for investment, and can take a long-term view – in contrast with the big French resorts, where owners (often banks and investment companies) and managements (usually Paris-based leisure conglomerates) are often constrained by the short-termism of shareholders.

Austrian hotels are characteristically small, family-run and reasonably priced, offering a kind of personal service that's rare by comparison with the more generalised "customer care". The cuisine hardly suits someone (such as myself) who doesn't eat meat and dislikes rich food, but the preparation and service can rarely be faulted, at least down in the villages.

It is in Austria's mountains, however, that problems arise – and not just at lunch-time. Although the scenery can be delightful, the mountains are neither very high nor very steep. Getting up them is easy, thanks to continuous investment in the lift systems since the 1980s; this season, there are notable improvements at Kitzbühel and Obergurgl. But getting down the mountains is easy, too. For expert skiers, Austria has little to compare with the tough terrain in France. For intermediates, on the other hand, there are excellent cruising slopes throughout the resorts, notably at Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Schladming and Soll, as well as in the Vorarlberg.

The relatively low altitude of the ski areas makes them less than snow-sure. Last season was exceptional: Austria frequently has problems with snow at its lower-lying resorts. Obergurgl, Ischgl and the Vorarlberg offer reliably good conditions; elsewhere, the snow-making equipment has to be relied upon to produce its inferior cover.

Nothing can be done about Austria's topography. But something must be done about the fearful noise at the top and bottom of its ski lifts. The Euro-disco blasting out of loudspeakers – not just in "party" resorts such as Ischgl, but even in civilised Zell am See – spoils the first run of the day, the last, and several in between. I suppose some skiers must find that it adds to their enjoyment of the mountains. They should be allowed to listen to it, under supervision, and in controlled conditions; the rest of us should be spared.

Fares for flights on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) are highly variable, from as little as £30 return to more than £200; the best deals are for travel midweek, booking well in advance and taking advantage of the airline's frequent special offers. For coach shuttles from Friedrichshafen airport to the Vorarlberg resorts, contact Loacker Tours (00 43 5523 59090; www.loackertours.at.com). Transfers cost €25 (£17) each way, and must be booked at least 48 hours in advance

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