Snow’n’Rail is the popular scheme organised every year by the Swiss Railways which provides a significant discount on the combined lift and public transport ticket prices for over 40 resorts. The booklets listing the offers are available from stations in local language versions, and the online brochure also provides details in English.
There are no new resorts for 2016/7 although les Portes du Soleil is back after a one year absence. Toggenburg, Hoch-Ybrig and Val D’Anniviers have fallen off the scheme, sadly, and a couple of minor resorts are now only listed online.
After modest increases last year, it is perhaps not surprising to see significant increases in some of the offers. Adelboden, the 4 Vallées, Saas-Fee and many Graubünden resorts have seen hikes around 10%. However Zermatt has kept prices flat, as have a number of other resorts, including Les Diablerets, Leysin, Villars, Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren, Gstaad, Meiringen, Sörenberg, Melchsee-Frutt, Klewenalp, Airolo and Stoos – some routes from Luzern have even fallen slightly.
Tickets can still get pricey, even with the discounts, especially if you do not have a half-price rail card. Without the additional discount, a full day skiing or snowboarding in Zermatt from Basel or Zurich will set you back around 270 SFr. Conversely, with a half-price card, a day in Engelberg will give you change from a 100 Sfr note. Meiringen, Sörenberg and Klewenalp, in particular, provide very good value for the extent of piste available.
For more details of the new season prices visit the resort pages at SwissWinterSports.
Another ski season is not far away, and many Swiss resorts have been busy upgrading their facilities ready for season 2016/17.
In Zermatt the ancient gondola below the Rothorn from Gant to Blauherd is being replaced by a six-seat chairlift.
In Saas-Fee the equally ancient gondola in the Spielboden sector is being replaced by a faster 10-seater gondola.
Andermatt continues its aggressive program of expansion. This season two T-bars will be replaced by six-seater chairlifts. In the following two seasons an additional two six-seater chairlifts and an eight-seater gondola will link the Nätschen area of Andermatt to Sedrun and open up 26km of new piste. Sedrun itself replaces a t-bar with a chairlift, a trend across many Alpine resorts.
Most people know Klosters for the Parsenn area, but the seperate Madrisa area is popular with families. Here an innovative six-seater chairlift, “Schaffürggli”, is being installed, the first of its kind in Switzerland. It features a laser scanner that uses hydraulics to adjust the height of the seat, making it much easier for children to get on and off. The chairlift will also have heated seats and can take wheelchair users up the mountain.
I’ve often thought it would be fun to have a drone film my descent. It would also be useful to give visitors to swisswintersports.co.uk an idea of what to expect. Well Verbier got there first and is offering Europe’s first self-tracking drones. The drones follow you on the slopes using Bluetooth and a GPS-enabled Smartphone App and Téléverbier rents them out the Hexo+ drones for CHF400 per day or CHF250 for a half day, providing assistance and a video at the end of the day.
All of the major airports in Switzerland lie just outside the Alps, but Swiss International Airlines now plan to provide a scheduled service between Sion and London, subject to a number of test flights. Sion Airport is in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and so close to the slopes you can actually see planes take off and landing from the pistes of several nearby resorts, including Verbier and Nendaz. Sion has been used for civilian flights for some time, but the last scheduled service from the UK was withdrawn a few years ago and the military will be withdrawing from using it from next year. The director of Sion airport, Aline Bovier-Gantzer says that “The initiative for the new flight is due to a collaboration with the Swiss tourism industry: Valais is already a favourite destination of British tourists during the winter months thanks to its proximity to some of Switzerland’s most popular ski resorts.”
Of course, if you fly to Switzerland, independent travellers can easily get to their resorts using the fabulous transport infrastructure available without having to resort to lengthy, uncomfortable coach transfers. You can also make the entire trip from many European cities directly by train, including London with the Eurostar ski train, booking for which is now open.
Just outside Switzerland’s borders but very popular with Swiss skiers is the Arlberg area in Austria. I remember that once you could get round the circuit that includes St Anton, Lech and Zürs, but for some years this has not been the case. Now a new gondola is scheduled to open that will link Zürs and Stuben to create the largest ski area in Austria, one of four new lifts that will be built in Ski Alberg over the summer. For the 2016/17 season this means Ski Arlberg will total 305km piste served by 87 lifts, fully linking St Anton, Stuben, St Christoph, Lech, Zürs, Schröcken and Warth.
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.