Despite the weak pound providing a welcome boost for UK seaside resorts, if you want the white stuff you pretty much have to go abroad, the often excellent Scottish resorts notwithstanding. The most ecological way to get to the Alps is undoubtedly by train, and one of the best options is the special Eurostar ski train that runs from 17th December this year until the 8th of April.
Tickets for the service this winter have just gone on sale. Two trains will run each week, leaving London St Pancras on Friday evening and Saturday morning for Bourg St Maurice, with drops convenient for a number of French resorts – particularly Les Arcs.
I can remember ski trains being pretty lively, with disco carriages at one time, but the frivolity is rather more limited these days and no alcohol is permitted on board.
As an alternative, scheduled Eurostar services now run to Lyon (or you can take normal Eurostar trains to Paris and change if the direct Lyon train times don’t suit you). From Lyon you can take a Lyria train direct to ski resorts in France and, in particular, Switzerland. More details on various options for taking the train to the slopes are given at snowandrail.com.
A topic of conversation amongst most skiers and snowboarders at one time or another is which is the best ski resort in the world. Of course, there is no clear definition of what constitutes the best, but there is one man who has established which are the world’s most popular ski resorts.
Laurent Vanat publishes an epic “International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism” every year (see http://www.vanat.ch/). This comprehensively researched report is fascinating, not least for the ranking of ski resorts.
One of the more interesting conclusions he draws this year is that winter sports are in decline in the traditional markets. Switzerland has seen almost a 20% reduction in skier days since 2004, a figure perhaps not so surprising give the strength of the Swiss Franc. However even the USA, Canada and Italy have started to slump in the last few years. Austria and France have been the major beneficiaries of people choosing alternative destinations, but even these have seen a decline in the last couple of years and have grown barely 5% in the last ten years.
The situation is mitigated by the explosive growth of skiing in China and some other emerging markets. In a separate report Laurent reports that China now has over five hundred ski resorts from a base of only a dozen twenty years ago.
Laurent attributes the relative decline of interest in winter sports, at least in part, to the failure of teaching techniques to adapt. He may have a point. Traditionally most skiers tend to give up the sport by their 60s, but the replacement rate is dictated by a number of factors. If the first experience of winter sports is unsatisfactory, it is hard to get people to give up their valuable holiday time and money to do it again. When I came through Gatwick in the middle of the ski season earlier this year I was struck by the overwhelming number of flights to and from winter sun destinations compared to ski resorts, and the demographic of the passengers reflected that an aging population is not going to benefit the winter sports industry.
Laurent’s report goes on to state that there are now around 66 countries that can be said to provide at least basic opportunities for lift-assisted, outdoor downhill skiing, around 20 others that provide indoor skiing facilities and 15 that have some snow coverage for at least some of the year and which, technically, could be skiable. By his estimate there are around 2000 ski resorts worldwide, with 35% in the Alps, 12% elsewhere in Western Europe, 21% in America, 13% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and 19% in East Asia. China’s rise as a skiing super-power is offset in Asia by Japan’s relative decline.
Laurent uses the number of days the slopes are visited as the basis for estimating skier numbers. Only 44 resorts receive more than one million skier visits in a typical winter season and top of the list as the world’s most popular ski resort is… La Plagne! The top ten reads like this:
Somewhat surprising to me is how different this list is compared with a list of the ten most extensive ski resorts given that skiers in poll after poll rate the extent of the ski terrain as the most important single factor – see here for most extensive.
Interestingly, only 20% of resorts account for 80% of skier visits with the Alps taking in 43% of all skier visits – more than double the number of skier visits in North America.
Ski culture is clearly most marked in countries with extensive ski facilities, but Germany and the UK have limited ski facilities but a large ski culture. The desinations of choice for the Germans are respectively Austria, Italy and Switzerland, whilst the Brits prefer France, then Austria and Italy. The Dutch contribute about 1 million ski visits each year, and choose Austria and France as their preferred destinations.
Surprisingly, more Swiss takes their ski holidays in Austria than Brits take in Italy. It puts some perspective on how far the strong Swiss franc is hurting the domestic tourist industry. However Switzerland, along with Austria and Norway, has over a quarter of the population active in winter sports. Although it doesn’t have any resorts in the top 20 most visited, I would have little difficulty placing at least half a dozen Swiss resorts in the best 20 in the world.
Of the approximately 400 million skier visits undertaken each season, around 20 million are from visits to the 43 indoor snow centres, half of which are in Western Europe.
With the vote too close to call, there is a strong possibility Britain, or at least England, will vote to exit the EU. What will the impact be on ski holidays after Brexit?
Well, the likelihood is you will be going to Glencoe next season. A lovely ski area it is true, so not all bad news. However a report in the Telegraph sees the price of ski holidays to traditional favourites like France and Austria cost significantly more. Industry insiders reckon it will add at least 10% to the cost of a ski holiday.
Holidays to non-EU destinations will also cost more if the pound plummets on Brexit, as is widely expected. This could be good news for Bognor.
However, locked into a spiral of higher interest rates, higher high street prices and negative equity as house prices sink, perhaps most Brits won’t be able to afford holidays anyway. At least there will be plenty of low-paid second jobs to take on as the Poles all return home.
And at least they can hear stories of the charms of the Costa Del Sol from grumbling ex-expats, who have had to come home because they can no longer live freely in the EU.
Assuming you can cough up the additional cost of a ski holiday to Europe, many pundits reckon air travel will not only be more expensive, but will involve more hassles and fewer available flights. An alternative is to take the train – many ski resorts have train services right to the slopes (see snowandrail.com). Ironically, many continental rail operators cross-subsidise their domestic services with the profits from their UK franchises, contributing to providing those much higher quality rail services that all the major ski nations in Europe enjoy.
In recent years, a huge amount of investment has gone into snow making facilities in many resorts across Switzerland, an investment that paid off during the early part of the 2015/16 season. After the snow failed to fall, resorts such as Arosa and Verbier were able to operate virtually as normal thanks to huge quantities of man-made snow. After a long absence, the snow eventually returned, falling heaviest during the middle part of January, and setting up a plethora of powder days for riders. This continued throughout much of the second half of the season, with excellent riding conditions available across many regions right up until Easter.
Of other ski regions, West Coast USA, Canada, Scotland and, to an extent, Scandinavia, all had good seasons. Eastern Europe was particularly poor, and amongst most other European ski areas only high resorts such as Chamonix fared well.