Where is this year's ski sensation?

You might be surprised. By Stephen Wood
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The Independent Travel
Everyone knew which would be the cool skiing destination this year. After a spectacular 1995/6 season in which North America's share of the UK ski market more than doubled, it was obvious that this season was going to see further rapid growth. So the brochures of the big six ski operators flagged 33 new North American resorts; and acres of newsprint and glossy ski-magazine pages have since been devoted to Canada and the US. Sure enough, the holidays sold in those countries in the first part of this booking season are way up on the same period last year: the US has seen a 33 per cent increase, and Canada 76 per cent.

Poor old Bulgaria hasn't had quite the same hype. Although Crystal Holidays' annual ski industry report showed that the country had, with 8.1 per cent, exactly the same share of the UK market last season as the US and Canada combined, only one of the big six operators added a new Bulgarian resort to its 1996/7 brochure. Indeed, this year's Good Skiing Guide devotes 94 pages to North America, while Bulgaria gets three pages peppered with criticisms of the food, ski-lifts, hire equipment, medical facilities and piste maintenance. Elsewhere, there is next to nothing printed about Bulgaria.

Which is curious, considering it is in fact Bulgaria, not North America, which is this season's fastest growing destination. Its ski bookings are up 89 per cent on the same period last year.

That figure - and those for the US and Canada quoted above - comes from the March-to-September statistics of the Holiday Booking Audit (HBA). And it is even more remarkable than it appears, because bookings to Bulgaria are traditionally made later in the season than those for North America. Between March and September last year, only 26 per cent of the whole season's bookings for Bulgaria were made; the comparable figures for the US and Canada were 35 per cent and 47 per cent respectively. If 1996/7 is anything like 1995/6, the big bulge in Bulgarian bookings could be yet to come.

I have been going through the HBA statistics with Terry McCarthy, the director of the company which produces them, StatsMR. Every month it visits 300 high street travel agents and surveys the bookings trade on the premises; from this sample the HBA extrapolates figures for the whole market, which are then supplied to clients in the travel trade. The survey teams do not monitor the type of holiday, so the statistics for skiing have to be generated on the basis of the booking season (ie winter), operator, and destination - so if you go to Val d'Isere in February just for the night-life, you're still a skier.

The statistics make great reading for some, and a horror story for others. While the cheaper European destinations (Italy, Andorra and, cheapest of all, Bulgaria) are doing well, the more expensive ones appear to be losing out to North America. On the basis of the March-to-September bookings, Italy has overtaken both France and Austria to become Britain's most popular ski destination - by a big margin. The HBA assesses sales of holidays to those countries so far at 28,939 for Italy (up 38 per cent on the same period last year), 23,360 for France (down 12 per cent) and 18,059 for Austria (down a whopping 27 per cent). Meanwhile, Bulgaria has overtaken both the US and Switzerland (down 8 per cent). Andorra is another big winner, with an improvement (71 per cent) almost as dramatic as Canada's - and, like Bulgaria, Andorra is a destination for which sales are traditionally made late in the season.

But Terry McCarthy is hesitant about making predictions for the remainder of the booking season. He says that the pattern of late bookings, which was prompted by the poor snows of the Eighties, is now changing: people are booking earlier, and the tour operators know that.

His breakdown also shows other ways in which booking patterns are changing. Skiers are getting less well organised - or perhaps just less gregarious. While the increase in bookings for small groups (up to four people) mirrors the 13 per cent overall growth in the market, and the number of medium groups (five to 10) shows an increase of 18 per cent, big group bookings (more than 10 people) lag behind the market at 7 per cent. More children, however, are going skiing this year: "with children" bookings have seen an increase 3 per cent greater than that for bookings made by people travelling without children. If you are reading this in the south east of England or East Anglia, you have a bigger chance to alter these patterns than if you live elsewhere in the country: southerners traditionally book their skiing holidays later (November and January were their peak months last year), and the divergence has grown this year.

All the HBA figures that Terry McCarthy gave me were for March to September. After our meeting, he received the information on October sales. He wasn't prepared to give me the details: his biggest travel-trade clients pay a six-figure sum for a year's supply of statistics, and they would not be pleased if he were to give the latest information out, free of charge. But he did bring this season's trends up to date. "The market did well in October, considerably better than in March to September," he said. "Most destinations - including Bulgaria - continued the previous trends, with one exception: France came back very strongly. But Italy is still outstripping the market, with almost one in four bookings being to an Italian resort."