Dare we begin to hope? Last weekend, residents of Chamonix, the French resort that is the de facto capital of European skiing, awoke to find up to 20cm of fresh snow on their balconies. By Monday the tourist office was talking about opening the first lifts early (on weekends in November) and anticipation was spreading that a repeat of last year’s European snow drought might be avoided.
While US resorts were enjoying bumper snowfalls (Snowbird in Utah and Breckenridge, Colorado, setting all-time records), many European skiers were encountering conditions that were the worst for 20 years or more and heaped further misery on hoteliers and tour operators already suffering the effects of the economic downturn. Figures from Crystal, the UK’s biggest ski tour operator, show the number of Britons who took a ski holiday last winter was down almost 26 per cent on the 2007/08 season. Pessimism is not hard to find in the ski industry, particularly in Switzerland, where the strong currency is prompting tourism officials to privately predict a 10 per cent fall in visitors. Some Swiss ski businesses are even more worried – one firm admitted its summer skiing figures were down 80 per cent.
Yet it is possible to find investment, expansion and optimism too. After poor snow years, demand for high-altitude, snow-sure resorts increases, so the timing is good for Jocelyne Sibuet’s new project. The renowned French hotelier is opening a four-star “ski palace” in December in Europe’s highest resort, Val Thorens. The 88-room Altapura (www.altapura.fr) is ski-in, ski-out, has its own ski shop, an extensive spa and, at 2,300 metres, guaranteed snow. The resort is celebrating its 40th anniversary this winter by adding a fourth high-speed “funitel” lift, which accesses a new area of the mountain, and two newly created pistes.
Avoriaz, another high-altitude, purpose-built French resort, has also undergone major developments, with the construction of three new apartment complexes plus Aquariaz, a huge indoor tropical-themed swimming pool (though this will not open till July). Together there are 369 new apartments, 100 of which are in the five-star Amara (www.pv-holidays.com). All are designed to echo the 1960s futurism of the original resort rather than reinvent it.
Defying the austere times, the Swiss resort of St Moritz has two new upmarket hotels. The lavish Giardino Mountain (www.giardino-mountain.ch) has five stars and food from Rolf Fliegauf (holder of two Michelin stars at his Ristorante Ecco in Ascona). Meanwhile, the four-star Nira Alpina (www.niraalpina.com), three miles outside the town but next to the Corvatsch cable car, is hoping to attract a younger clientele more focused on serious skiing than on the resort’s shops and nightlife.
There is no shortage of new luxury chalets this winter either. Abercrombie and Kent has been arranging holidays since 1962 but launches its first collection of ski chalets this winter, while leading operators Consensio (www.consensioholidays.co.uk) and Scott Dunn (www.scottdunn.com) both have new properties in Val d’Isère (Lhotse and Le Rocher, respectively). Both feature what seems to be the new must-have for top-end chalets – an indoor swimming pool with cinema screen. In Revelstoke, British Columbia, attention is focusing on Bighorn (www.bighornrevelstoke.com), an opulent chalet for 16 with pool, spa, cinema and a private helipad.
The season’s big news in terms of equipment is the Salomon BBR ski (www.salomon.com). In the late 1990s Salomon helped revolutionise skiing with innovative models including the twin-tipped 1080 but recently it has lagged behind younger companies, notably Armada (www.armadaskis.com). The BBR is its bid to regain the initiative; the ski’s wide, surfboard-like tip and narrow tail are designed to make it perform both in deep powder and on a hard piste.
The other key trend is the growth of ski touring (climbing up mountains on skis rather than using lifts), a sport that was once the unfashionable poor relation of skiing and snowboarding. According to the latest Market Intelligence Report from SnowSports Industries America, sales of touring kit in the US rose 87 per cent last year, while snowboarding equipment was down 4 per cent in terms of units sold. “Within the next five years at least half of all skiers will have backcountry/ski touring gear,” says Benedikt Boehm, international brand manager for equipment manufacturer Dynafit. “The whole market will change towards skiing gear with uphill function. That means ski touring will soon become bigger than snowboarding.”
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