Travel: Ski news '98: A special report

A few precocious skiers may have hit the slopes before Christmas, but the 1997/8 skiing season really begins today. Those who travelled to the mountains yesterday will ski from the old year into the new, in what is the first big week for the tour operators; and by the time you read this, most of them will already have done a couple of runs.

Still a bit early to decide what sort of season this will be? Not for the tour operators and ski-equipment companies, because they already know. For them, it is the pre-Christmas period that matters: they've already done the business, and they couldn't be happier. But for skiers, the season is looking more patchy - so far. In the run-up to Christmas the Dolomites, Austria and eastern Switzerland had snowfalls of up to a metre, as did many of the north American destinations; but the French resorts were struggling - Meribel was open, but only just. Compared with 1996/7, the immediate outlook was poor.

Of course last season's snow was good: you had to go north to Scotland or east to Bulgaria to find any seriously bare patches. But although on the popular points of the compass - south in the Alps, west in north America - there was enough snow for everyone to return home satisfied, it wasn't a great year, except in Canada. In the Alps there was a huge snowfall in November and early December - and that was about it. By the time most skiers got to the slopes, the snow had been sprayed, smoothed and back- combed so many times that it was as natural as Ken Dodd's hair.

The pound, on the other hand, had a great 1996/7. As the managing director of Crystal Holidays, Andy Perrin, said last month: "The exchange rates were so favourable last season, particularly in Austria and France, that people almost felt as if they'd come home with change in their pocket." Keen prices, windfalls and the feelgood factor all helped to increase the ski market by 10 per cent last season; if early booking levels are maintained, this year's market will be up again, by a massive 40 per cent.

So we can be sure of two things for the new season. First, there'll be few last-minute bargains, because most holidays will have been sold well before the last minute: and second, lift queues will be longer. True, fewer Britons have booked skiing holidays in Germany this year than in 1997, according to early-season figures from the market research company, ACNeilsen, but every other country is showing big increases. There will be 78 per cent more British skiers in France this season, 46 per cent more in Andorra, 42 per cent in Austria and 39 per cent in Switzerland.

Those countries have attracted the crowds; but where are the canny skiers going? Well, the canniest got back yesterday: because it started so early this year, Christmas week proved unusually difficult to sell, and some operators cut their prices for it in mid-November. But for 1998, because it is performing relatively badly Italy looks a good bet - and perhaps the western USA, too. Although tour operators are complaining that the Italian resorts have become cocky after three years of steadily increasing demand and are charging inflated prices, the lire is still going cheap. And the fact that the home market dominates Italian resorts means that the slopes are quiet during the week - because Italians ski at the weekends.

The western USA is a long shot, but it could offer some rare late-booking bargains. Despite all the hype, only five per cent of British skiers go to US resorts; and this year two weekly charter flights to Denver have greatly increased the number of seats available, at a time when the dollar has become relatively more expensive than European currencies. A couple of months ago, one tour operator told me that he expected "a bloodbath" because of over-capacity on routes to the western USA; if he's right, the tour operators' blood will be spilled, and skiers will clean up.

On the slopes, there's no doubt what will be the big thing. Last year, everybody was talking about the new "carving" skis, with their narrow waist and wide tip and tail; this year everybody's been buying them. After almost a decade during which ski sales fell steadily and the equipment manufacturers looked to snowboarding as the growth area for winter sports, skis are back in fashion. Anyone using traditional skis will look as smart this year as all those economists who talked up South Korea.

Although snowboards are still very popular with teenagers, there is a rival form of equipment this season for those who find skis too staid. Along with other ski retailers, Snow+Rock has had an excellent year, with overall sales up by 25 per cent over 1996/7; and one of its best performers has been Salomon's new "snowblades". The order which Snow+Rock placed last summer was expected to cover the whole season, but the stock was exhausted before the end of October, and it had to re-order. Snowblades are very short skis, only 90cm long, with turned-up tips and tails and a slight carving "side-cut"; their integrated bindings simply hook over the toe and heel for ski boots. Highly manoeuvrable, they are the winter- sports equivalent of roller blades. Watch out for them this year, because you are bound to be cut up by young bladers on the European slopes.

On the other hand, snow-shoers should provide no threat - not only because they move so slowly, but also because they will be few and far between. The trend for snow-shoeing in the USA, where it is the fastest-growing winter sport, is unlikely to be followed in Europe, least of all by the British. When you have travelled a thousand miles to the snow, you expect to do something more exciting than just go for a walk on it. But snow- shoeing is a curiously exhilarating activity, as I found out when I tried it in St Christoph in the spring: if you tire of skiing this season, try a pair of snow-shoes. You'll find it even more tiring walking up the slopes, but physically very satisfying, too.

Finally, one other thing to look out for this season - ski reps trying to sell you another holiday. The "preview" brochures pioneered by Inghams proved so successful that the other tour operators followed their example; and now all skiing brochures are being published earlier. Amazingly, the ACNeilsen survey of winter holidays showed that in September some people had already booked their 1998/9 skiing trips. But it's a bit early to predict what sort of season that will be.