Where to see an elephant on skis

Stephen Wood visits Sestriere as it gears up to host this year's World Skiing Championships
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The Independent Travel
This morning, the big sign on the main square at Sestriere has changed. Beneath the slogan "Sestriere '97" and alongside the curious logo of an elephant on skis, it now carries the message "29". That's not the temperature; the sign counts down the days to the beginning of this year's World Skiing Championships at the resort, 60 kilometres west of Turin.

If you are skiing in Sestriere this month, you will notice other signs of the coming event. There is a new giant slalom piste running down from Mt Sises next to the famous Kandahar slalom course; a new hotel (for the time being, the athletes' village) has been built near the centre of the resort; and if you arrive from the Turin-Frejus motorway, you will see construction workers desperately trying to finish the Oulx and Cesena bypasses before the opening ceremony on 2 February. They, at least, are working in the comfort of the valley; last month, while Sestriere got its fair share of the early snow falls, the worst construction job in the world must have been erecting - in a blizzard - the 2,000-seat grandstand on the blue run down to Borgata (temporarily reserved for bulldozers) for the finish line of the downhill and Super-G courses.

Sestriere is a special case this year, because of the World Championship. But every summer, when the skiers aren't there, every resort works on improvements for the following winter. If you go back to La Plagne this year, you'll be surprised to find a snowboarding "Snow Park" that wasn't there last season; at Sliver Creek, Colorado, you will encounter a new hazard, the fleet of snowbikes it has imported; at les Deux Alpes, you may spot the new dustbin sheds, "in the shape of miniature chalets and built from traditional materials". At almost every resort you will find improved ski lifts, and more snow cannons.

The 1995/6 season at Sestriere ended on 21 April. By the time this season started, exactly seven months later, the management company Sestriere Spa - wholly owned, directly or indirectly, by the car manufacturer Fiat - had made improvements at four of the group of ski areas it runs. At Sauze d'Oulx, Claviere and Sestriere itself the lifts have been upgraded; at Sansicario, a sound-wave system for dislodging avalanches has been installed; and at Sestriere, the automatic system for firing the snow- cannons has been extended to cover the Monte Motta area.

Sestriere Spa has been improving its lifts since the beginning of the decade, but without increasing their number - which has in fact shrunk from about 100 to 71. The new lifts are faster, and bigger (four-seater chairlifts rather than two-seaters). That's good for the customer, but good for the business, too - replace a couple of small lifts with a big one, and you halve the labour force required. Automatic snow-cannons are also a labour-saving device: they sense when the temperature and humidity are suitable for snow-making (usually at night), and then switch themselves on.

Unlike, say, at Les Arcs, where the decision to install lavatories on the slopes was the result of market research, Sestriere does not survey customers' needs. The marketing manager, Sam Laurent, consults the local reps, and the improvement in the area's piste signs was one response to their requests. But Laurent's main concern is what he wants: more hotel beds - of which there are only 7,000 in Sestriere and the neighbouring resorts.

That's why the most important development for Sestriere this year is the World Championship itself: rather than being an interruption in the normal business of catering for recreational skiers (a factor which makes many resorts reluctant to stage big race events), it is part of the resort's long-term plans. A spokesman for the race organisers, Stefano Coscia, explained that it is hosting the World Championship "to raise the image of Sestriere, in order to bring in Northern European [mainly British] holidaymakers".

Sestriere's proximity to Turin gives it a curious problem. At weekends it attracts crowds of Italian day-trippers, with whom the lifts have to cope; but because it has had limited success in attracting foreign holidaymakers, there are few hotel beds. Sestriere Spa runs only the ski slopes, although for historical reasons (Fiat originally created Sestriere in the Thirties as a holiday resort for its own workforce) it also owns the original hotel buildings. To make full use of its ski lift network, the resort needs more investment in hotel-building and infrastructure, and more foreign customers staying for a whole week.

The first stage of the plan has already worked out: for the first World Championship to be held in the country since 1985 at Bormio, the Italian government chipped in an pounds 8.2m investment (hence the local road improvements). Whether the event will, ultimately, bring in the non-Italian skiers, I couldn't say - but they wouldn't be disappointed by Sestriere. At first sight, the skiing seems too obvious, with a lot of blues and reds running down the open, north-west-facing slope to the resort; but when you head up into the "Anfiteatro" above Borgata - or, via the cable car, to the underrated Sauze d'Oulx area - there are some excellent red runs that dash across the snow-bowls and drop down through the trees on wide, sweeping pistes. The other good thing about Sestriere is that it caters for Italians; it's difficult to eat badly there.

Up in the Anfiteatro in last month's blizzards, and feverish with flu, I did a fair imitation of the World Championship logo, the elephant on skis. That figure seems inappropriate for an event involving the world's best ski racers, but it refers to Hannibal, who is supposed to have passed through - well, at least near - Sestriere on his way across the Alps in 218BC. The elephant was originally to bear his name, but a canny Italian company had already registered it. So the curious figure which is counting the days to Sestriere's World Championship has been blessed with an even more curious name: "Annifant".