Winter sports: The world's strangest ski destinations
Saturday 23 October 2010
The list of places in which you are probably never going to ski is a long one. Chréa in Algeria appears on it, along with Antarctica. Then there's Afriski in Lesotho ("This year it operated entirely with man-made snow"), Mauna Kea in Hawaii ("Skiing for six months of the year accessed by a 'gondola on wheels', a 4x4 truck"), Malam Jabba in Pakistan ("The Taliban have destroyed most of the facilities") and Mount Hermon in Israel's Golan Heights ("now 200 metres from the Syrian border, with minefields in the vicinity").
This selection of destinations – and the comments upon them – comes from Patrick Thorne, whose Snow24 database now lists more than 5,500 places around the world in which skiing is feasible. It must be said that none of the "resorts" above can provide much in the way of competition for Val d'Isère. So the fact that you and most other British skiers are unlikely to visit them doesn't indicate any lack of initiative. But Thorne – to whom one must defer in matters pertaining to obscure ski destinations – points out that we shun other locations which do have significant attractions. He cites a handful in evidence. The Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, just a few minutes drive from the desert gambling strip has an 8,500ft base elevation, fairly reliably has skiing from November to Easter, and an après-ski scene that is second to none. At Vradal in Norway, one of southern Norway's most popular tourist destinations since the 1860s, the appeal is essentially historical: it is in these mountains where native-born Sondre Nordheim developed the Telemark technique, the forerunner of Alpine skiing.
Thorne himself was seduced by Mont Sutton in Canada. This is what he wrote about it: "Located in the heart of the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, Sutton has the immediate charm that so many ski resorts claim, yet so few actually deliver".
The more adventurous might be drawn to these places; but by and large the British skier is a creature of habit, as a glance at old ski guides will reveal. In his introduction to Ski-ing for Beginners (1909), the author W Rickmer Rickmers recommends six destinations to the would-be skier. Four of them – Villars, Davos, St Anton and Kitzbuhel – are still high in our list of favourites. In more modern times, the Time Off Skiing Guide of 1963 offered ratings of 75 resorts, prefaced with a handy exchange-rate table (in which the still-familiar French franc was worth a very alien-looking 1s 6d).
The selection did ignore mountains outside Europe, and heavily favoured Scandinavia, "something new" for skiers according to the introduction; but although it pre-dated the construction of France's high-altitude, purpose-built resorts, the guide's choices in the Alps were familiar, unlike the surrounding, strange and forbidding Norse names such as Bygdin, Trollheimen, Rattvik and Hardangervidda. Take out the German destinations, and of the remaining Alpine resorts only four no longer appear in the major ski brochures.
The reason for this apparent inertia is simple, reckons Stevan Popovich. Now general manager of the Ski Dream division of the wide-ranging W&O travel company (formerly Western & Oriental), Popovich has also worked for Crystal and Inghams in a 20-year career. In recent decades, he says, France has been the bedrock of UK skiing: the creation of new resorts through the 1970s and 1980s gave it the capacity to expand its share of the market, and British skiers' predilection for snow-sure, high-altitude skiing – on increasingly large, linked ski areas – did the rest.
Among the core of British skiers there is a substantial constituency which prefers the more traditional virtues of Austrian skiing; but France, says Popovich, "is always going to have 30 to 35 per cent of the market". Ask him about the introduction of less-familiar resorts by British tour operators and his first thought is of the relatively undiscovered parts of France – a country which, he says, has "hundreds of places in which to ski". (Almost 400 of them, according to Patrick Thorne's database.)
Among those that he believes have potential is Les Contamines, which 46 years ago was described by the Time Off guide as an "unspoilt village [which] should resist ruin for half a decade". Outside the core of those committed to France, Austria and other traditional destination, plus others who are constrained by their means to ski – often very happily – in budget destinations such as Bulgaria, Popovich says there is an "outer ring" of skiers who are relatively promiscuous. He guesses that they make up 10 per cent or more of the market. They are happy to experiment, either through a desire for discovery or a belief that bargains lie off the beaten track.
In his new job this outer ring is particularly important, since Ski Dream is a bespoke tour operator with a speciality in the more rarified resorts of North America; to its credit, it offers ski holidays in Oregon, which is about as close to heaven as the US gets these days. Unfortunately, it is the bargain-hunters who now get all the attention, rather than the ski explorers. In better times, a dozen years ago, the then marketing director of Crystal (now the boss of Inghams and its associated companies) described going into uncharted ski areas in terms that made it sound like a crusade. "It makes a statement about the sort of company we are," Andy Perrin said.
"Our customers are people who choose to do something more exciting than lie on the beach for a week. The big tour operators, for whom skiing is only a small part of their business, tend to concentrate on a few established resorts where the volume is high. That's the bankers' approach to ski operating; it's not ours."
The suggestion that banks might favour skiing rather than hedging, and the very idea of bankers being over-cautious, shows how far we have come since then; so, too, does the fact that in that season, 1997/98, Crystal added to its programme holidays to Gudauri in Georgia, located at 2,123m in the Caucasus. It had just five lifts but also seven lift-off points for heli-skiing shuttles. The holidays were priced – at between £1,200 and £2,200 per week – according to the accumulated length of ski descents, to a maximum of 20,000m vertical. The only innovation of recent years anywhere near as bold as that was the launch, in 2006, of ski packages to Japan.
This time (Japan had been offered before, unsuccessfully) it was Inghams that made the running, with a week's package to Niseko and Rusutsu at the reasonably accessible price of just under £1,000. What made this possible, it was said at the time, was a combination of a weak yen, spare capacity on JAL flights, and a downturn in the popularity of winter sports in the home market.
Conditions have changed, and the holidays have doubled in price; but Crystal's Japanese programme survives: Niseko and Rusutsu led off early editions of its 2010/11 brochure.
The success of Japan is remarkable: Michael Bennet of the leading independent tour operator Ski Independence says of his company's programme there that "everybody comes back saying how great it is". Can we expect any such surprises in the immediate future, perhaps closer to home? Most of the candidates are flawed, unfortunately. Greece has more than 20 ski areas, and Mounts Helmos (with skiing up to 2,340m) and Parnassus look promising; but comments in ski guides such as "call before you set out to check that resorts are open" don't inspire confidence.
Morocco has keenly priced skiing (less than £20 a day for a lift pass and equipment) at Oukaimeden, near Marrakech in the Atlas mountains; but skiing in North Africa, even on slopes as high as 3,250m, is a hard sell. Turkey – another place in which I have not yet skied – is a possibility. It has more than a dozen sizeable resorts, among them Palandoken, which was in the Inghams brochure for 2001/02 but was dropped after 9/11. Just 10 minutes from Erzurum airport, the Palandoken ski area has slopes rising to 3,176m, and an FIS-approved race piste which will be used for the universities' world championship this season.
And the Turkish government is bullish about skiing, having announced at the beginning of this year a seemingly far-fetched plan for the creation of 40 new ski areas. The dark horse is Russia. It, too, plans to invest in skiing: £10bn is apparently earmarked for the construction of five resorts in the Caucasus in a project called "Altitude 5,642", a reference to the altitude in metres at the peak of nearby Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest mountain. The 2014 Winter Olympics will take place at Sochi, also in the Caucasus; and both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev are skiers. Probably Russia should not be on that list of places where you are never going to ski.
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