These days a ski break does not have to involve much actual skiing at all. Spas, good food and wine, nature treks and a raft of leisure activities rival for tourists’ attention, say French ski industry experts.
“The state of mind of holiday-makers has changed in 30 years. Nowadays it’s not so much about effort as about enjoyment,” says Laurent Reynaud, general delegate of France’s national ski lift operator.
“People used to come here for sport. Now they come for pleasure.”
Seven million people — two million of them foreign tourists — converge on France’s dense network of ski villages and purpose-built resorts from December to April each year, the largest number after the United States.
But the average time they spend whizzing up and down the mountain has dropped from six hours a day two decades ago, to just four hours now, Reynaud says.
This has changed the rules of the game for ski resorts, which in France had been firmly turned towards intensive sport ever since skiing exploded as a mainstream leisure activity in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Tourists just don’t want skiing to be synonymous with a hard slog any more,” says Isabelle Pochat-Cottilloux, head of the tourism office in Grand-Bornand, a family-friendly resort in the Alps that bills itself as “festive and rejuvenating.”
“People in a same family will be looking for different things,” she says.
While dad might want to hit the slopes all day, mum may head to the spa and coffee room, their teenage daughter will go ice skating and her brother will check out a movie before an afternoon’s snowboarding.
To respond to shifting demand, Grand-Bornand has built an arts centre, an ice rink with DJ and booming dance music for teens — and an ice climbing wall, since branching out from skiing also means catering to extreme sport lovers.
Plus, two shiny new spas have just opened in the resort.
“There is a real demand. Hotels and apartment blocks with spas and a pool are finding it easier to fill their rooms, even though they cost more,” says Pochat-Cottilloux.
In Vallorcine, near the European mountaineering capital Chamonix, the five-star hotel Residence et Spa boasts a Japanese bath, a hammam and sauna — and a client base who for the most part do not ski at all.
“People come here to recharge their batteries, and for the calm and authentic atmosphere,” says the hotel’s head of public relations Clotilde Hezez.
French ski resorts have also moved their restaurant offer upmarket over the past decade, breaking away from staple mountain fare like raclette and tartiflette — hearty dishes built around melted cheese, potatoes and cured meats.
Courchevel, for instance, a resort popular with Russian billionaires, counts seven Michelin-starred eateries — as well as a wine restaurant manned by Enrico Bernardo, one of a handful of winners of the world’s top sommelier award.
Luxury aside, for Pochat-Cottilloux the search for an invigorating mountain experience is a motivation for many.
“These days people come to the mountains to get back in touch with nature,” agrees Laure Di Giuliomaria of the tourism office in Serre-Chevalier, another Alpine resort.
“They’d rather ski three hours a day, and spend the rest of the time snowshoeing or sledging.”
In the same vein, in the resort of Vallorcine, for the past four years, Pascal Berguerand has offered ski joering, a Scandinavian kind of horse-drawn skiing, whose name means “ski driving”.
“No need to be a good skier, you just have to let yourself glide,” says Berguerand, adding that it attracts a mix of horse lovers and new sensation-seekers, who are in for a treat since his galloping horses hit about 50 kilometres (30 miles) per hour.