In 1993 World Media And Events Limited launched the World Travel Awards and, buoyed by the success of this, launched the World Ski Awards in 2013. It’s only a bit of fun, although I am sure it brings business not only to the organisers but also the award winners. The approach is straightforward: votes are cast online by professionals working within the ski industry, and by ski tourism consumers, at the World Ski Awards website.
Every year the awards are associated with a three day networking event, culminating in the awards ceremony, this year held in Kitzbühel over 16th-18th November. World’s Best Winners for 2018 included:
Ski Resort – Val Thorens (France)
Freestyle Resort – LAAX (Switzerland)
Ski Hotel – W Verbier (Switzerland)
New Ski Hotel – Fahrenheit Seven Courchevel (France)
Green Ski Hotel – rocksresort, Laax (Switzerland)
Ski Boutique Hotel – Aurelio Lech (Austria)
Ski Chalet – Chalet Les Anges, Zermatt (Switzerland)
New Ski Chalet – Chalet des Cascades, Les Arcs (France)
Ski Tour Operator – Sunweb
As well as awards for the best in the world, there are also country awards, with votes for the best ski resort in Switzerland going to Verbier.
What makes for these airports to be designated as Category C? The Torygraph goes on to explain: “Challenging visual manoeuvring within the valley, made harder by low-level wind shear (a sudden change of wind velocity and/or direction), come as standard. The approach is fraught with challenges for the aircraft’s captain, who is the only one allowed to fly the plane – the first officer isn’t qualified.”
I can certainly vouch for Innsbruck as the scariest. It is quite an astonishing experience to look out of the cabin window for the approach to the airport, with all the surrounding Alpine peaks seemingly almost close enough to touch as the pilot twists and turns through the descent.
However if you want a really white-knuckle ride into your ski resort, try the small airport in the resort of Courchevel. It is Europe’s highest tarmacked runway and is too short to safely accommodate most types of aircraft. Fewer than 100 pilots have the special “Qualification of Sight” licence required to land there.
Of course there is an alternative if you are not minded to fly for a ski holiday – take the train! There are over 50 ski resorts with railway stations right in the resort (including all those named above). Visit Snow and Rail for more details.
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.