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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 December 2004, 09:53 GMT
Ski companies feel the cold
By James Cove
BBC News, from the Alps

As the ski season gets under way across Europe a growing number of British skiers are shunning the traditional tour operators and going independently to ski resorts this winter.

A woman skiing
Independent travellers want greater flexibility

Figures released by the Ski Club of Great Britain show that independent skiers now make up almost 25% of the market; a rise of more than 300% in the past five years.

"The growth of the independent skiers is one of the fundamental changes taking place in the industry," says Vanessa Fisher from the Ski Club of Great Britain.

"They use budget airlines, book accommodation over the internet and save themselves a fortune."

Easyjet has seen the number of passengers flying to airports near the Alps rise five-fold over the past four years.

Around 1.2m British people head to the slopes each winter, and the growth in go-it-alone travellers could have severe financial consequences for the ski travel companies.

British tour operator bookings are already down for Christmas with some holidays now being sold at half price as operators try to stop potential losses.

"In part this is due to Christmas Day and New Year's Day falling on a Saturday, the traditional change over day in ski resorts," says Peter Hardy, co-editor of The Good Skiing and Snowboarding Guide.

"But it's also due to the rise in people simply making their own arrangements and by-passing the tour operator."

Going DIY

Last year I travelled independently to the Swiss resort of Zermatt.

It cost just over 500 for a week - with a tour operator it would have been around 800. Surprisingly flight times are often more convenient and you retain more control over your holiday.

The Alps
With its infrastructure and hotels Switzerland is an ideal location

The main difficulty is getting from the airport to the resort, but cheaper car hire and improved bus and rail links mean this is changing.

The Swiss resorts of Zermatt, Davos and Engleberg are particularly popular as they have a large number of hotels and direct rail connections. Swiss Rail offers a return ticket from its airports to resort for 53.

"We are targeting DIY skiers as we feel Switzerland with its good travel infrastructure and large number of hotels is an ideal destination", says Heidi Reisz from Switzerland Tourism.

In France there are good bus connections to resorts and taxi firms have sprung up ferrying people to resorts such as Chamonix, Les Gets and Tignes.

While those in the know rent a car from the French side of Geneva airport where prices can be up to 25% cheaper than the Swiss side.

Independent effect

The growth of the independent skier is already affecting the resorts as people choose hotels, with their greater flexibility, rather than the chalet.

Over the past two years chalet accommodation has declined by 4%.

Resorts are also looking to offer more flexible accommodation than the traditional weekend-to-weekend package.

Julian Griffiths
Julian Griffiths has seen an increase in number of self-arranged holidays
The growth is also affecting other aspects of resorts.

"We used to get most of our business from the tour operators", says Julian Griffiths from European Snowsport, a British-run ski school based in Verbier.

"However, we're seeing an increasing number of people on self-arranged holidays so we must target them and offer them what they want," he says.

Last year 10% of European Snowsport's bookings were made independently via the internet; in the pre-season period this year it is already up to 20%.

Industry fights back

The tour companies are now responding to the threat.

"For many it's too much effort to co-ordinate the arrangements, their holiday is not bonded and they have no rep in the resort to help them out," says Stuart MacLeod, the managing director of the Specialist Holiday Group that owns Crystal, Thompson and Simply Ski.

"We'll respond to any changes in the travel market and we're already doing this to meet the changing needs of skiers."

With an eye to the future the tour operators are de-constructing the package holiday and offering tailor made packages with people selecting the parts they want.

Last year this market grew by 3% and is undoubtedly the ground upon which the tour operators plan their fight back over the coming seasons.

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