Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Sunday, 15 February 2009

Ski industry feels the economic cold

By James Cove
The Alps

Chalet in the alps
In spite of great snow conditions, many chalets stand empty

Returning to the UK, with fresh snow falling and record levels of deep powder out on the slopes, is not quite what 23-year-old Kieran Tincombe has in mind.

He had gone to live his dream and work in a ski resort all winter, but poor bookings meant he lost his job as a tour rep in the resort of Val Thorens, high up in the snow capped French Alps.

"I'm absolutely gutted as I was really enjoying myself," he says as he starts the long journey back home.

"I'm going home with my tail between my legs, but there simply aren't enough people taking a ski holiday this winter."

'Never been this bad'

Across the Alps, in the up-market resort of Verbier in Switzerland, it is a similar story.

We've reduced the cost of many of our holidays and they're being snapped up as people see a good bargain
Marion Telsnig, Crystalski

"It's never been this bad," says Julia Beldam, huddled over a hot chocolate in Le Cosy Bar just off the town's main square.

Outside, snow is falling heavily and people have their heads down and collars up as the wind whips up the snow.

It is not an evening to be outside as yet another big snowstorm is buffeting the Alps.

"It's never been this bad," says Ms Beldam, who has been running Ski with Julia, the longest established chalet company in Verbier, for more than 30 years.

"A few weeks ago we'd still not rented our main chalet over the half-term week. Normally it's booked before the winter even starts.

"However we've just taken a booking from a French group," she explains with a large sigh of relief.

"It's the first time we've rented to a group of non-British guests."

Lost skills

The equipment manufacturers are suffering too.

Many skiers make do with their old equipment

In Sallanches in the Chamonix valley, near the mighty Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak, lies the Dynastar ski factory.

Many of its machines are idle and there is an empty, soulless feel about the place.

Some 187 staff have just been laid off, out of a total of 273, as cash-strapped skiers make do with their old equipment.

The factory has been here since 1968 and still makes some skis by hand.

"Some of the workers have been here all their life and know of no other job," company spokeswoman Nadine Carle says, during a test of their skis on the slopes near the factory.

"Their skills may be lost forever. Fathers and sons work side by side here."

Many of the local skiers prefer Dynastar to any other brand as they are made in the Chamonix Valley, possibly by friends or family.

Brand loyalty runs deep in this part of the mountains.

"I won't buy a Dynastar ski if it's made in Eastern Europe or somewhere else as it just won't be the same," one man says.

"It won't have been made with love and passion."

Empty beds

To see the level of unsold holidays you just need to look at the ski web sites.

Alpine skier
After skiing it is time for lunch, with skiers on a budget taking picnics

The tour operators are offering bigger and bigger discounts to try to tempt people away from the economic worries back home and lure them out to the snowy Alps.

"The number of unsold holidays is unprecedented," says Craig Burton, commercial director of the specialist ski agency

"Some operators remain hopeful that their holidays will suddenly sell at close to full price in March, but the indicators don't point to this."

The company is offering two holidays for the price of one at the moment and discounting appears to be working.

"We've reduced the cost of many of our holidays and they're being snapped up as people see a good bargain," says Marion Telsnig from Crystalski, the UK's largest tour operator.

Lack of work

In one of Verbier's most popular apres-ski venues, The T-Bar, instructors are pulling pints to get some extra money.

French snowboarder Victor De Le Rue
Conditions have been great for the ones who have gone to the Alps

It is loud inside with a smell of stale beer and cigarettes hanging in the air and people have to shout to be heard. Clearly, not everyone is staying away.

"I work here in order to make ends meet and get some extra cash as everything is so expensive," says Hansu Kim who works as a snowboard instructor.

"It pays less but there's not so much teaching work around this season."

With that he goes over to take a drinks order from some British tourists who are enduring the brutal sterling/swiss franc exchange rate.

"I'm on holiday and I'm simply not thinking about the exchange rate as I want to enjoy myself," one woman says.

Others are on a budget and steer clear of the mountain restaurants, where nowadays you will not get much change out of 80 for a simple lunch for a family of four.

"It's actually quite fun eating a bread and ham picnic out on the slopes and I don't mind missing out on the mountain restaurants, which are all over-priced anyway."

Record levels of snow

The people who have braved their economic woes have been blessed by the best snow conditions for years.

There has been further snowfall this week and the snow is now dripping off the trees.

There is a real sense of expectancy as, once all the lifts re-open, the runs will be excellent.

"This winter has been amazing and it's still snowing so we're all set for a bumper half term week," says Julian Griffiths, director of the ski school European Snowsport.

Skiing the slopes of Verbier with fresh snow underfoot and a perfect blue sky overhead, he is grinning from ear to ear.

"It started snowing in mid-November and hasn't stopped," he says.

"It's the best season I can remember."

The good snow has meant locals are making the most of the winter too.

The Compagnie des Alpes, the largest lift operator in the Alps, says sales went up 18.3% for the October to December period 2008, when compared with the same quarter a year earlier.

A cheaper option

And there are ways to keep the costs of a ski holiday under control.

"Cleaning up a bathroom and emptying the bin is perhaps not the ideal way to end a ski holiday but for the price it's worth it," says British skier, Matt Johnstone.

He is on holiday in Flaine with the French organization UCPA, Union Centre Plein Aire, which charges less than 400 for a week with everything included.

It is a bit spartan, as you need to share a room, serve and clear away your own meals in the canteen and then at the end of the week strip the bed and clean the room.

"If this is what I need to do to get skiing - then fine," Mr Johnstone says as he clears away his dirty plates from the lunch table.

He empties the leftovers into the garbage bin, puts his glass in the washing tray and smiles broadly as he glances out of the window at the beckoning ski slopes.

"I'm off skiing this afternoon," he says.

"It's only cost me a few hundred pounds and life couldn't be better."

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