There was a time, not so many years ago, when Andorra had half a dozen ski areas and a reputation for low-cost winter holidays that saw the tiny principality in the Pyrenees, sandwiched between France and Spain, climb up to the giddy heights of a 14%t share in the UK ski market in 2002/3. Considering its tiny dimensions, in comparison to the big alpine nations, this was quite an achievement and one unmatched by any small nation in the history of ski travel.
Andorra was the best-value ski destination
What was the attraction? Well primarily low-cost holidays in a duty-free nation, famed for its sunny (but still snowy) climate and relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere. While residents of neighbouring Spain and France drove up to the border to fill up with cheap petrol and shop in the hypermarkets for low-priced cigarettes and alcohol, British and Irish skiers arrived in their tens of thousands to ski. Andorra had, and still has, an excellent reputation as a learn-to-ski destination with largely English-speaking ski schools, many staffed by Antipodean or British teachers, providing a friendly, first-rate service.
But about a decade ago now, things began to change. Andorran skiing had been so successful that the individual ski areas were starting to run into each other and development land in the valleys was running out too, driving real estate prices up. At the same time destinations in Eastern Europe, now free of Russian Soviet control, were reinventing themselves and offering a higher standard of ski holiday, threatening Andorra’s reputation for best value, what's more Brits had begun snapping up cheap ski properties in Bulgaria and Romania.
A move away from the budget market
Something had to change for Andorra’s ski resorts. The decision was made to move away from the budget market and start to provide more luxurious holidays at a higher cost. The cheap-and-cheerful image has not gone entirely – Andorra still has some of the most affordable après-ski thanks to those duty-free prices, but as the hotels added stars and the lifts went from drags to high-speed six-seaters (at one point Grandvalira offered more of these fast new lifts than any other resort on the planet), lift prices went up faster than anywhere else. At the same time, that impressive market share of 14% dropped by one point, on average, every season during the first decade of this century, bottoming out at 5% in 2008/9, according to industry reports.
Investment & decline
“In 2000, Andorra started to invest heavily in upgrading the infrastructure on the slopes. They eliminated cheap self-catering accommodation and replaced with several four- and five-star hotels in an attempt to rebrand skiing in Andorra, says Marion Telsnig of the UK’s largest ski tour-operator, Crystal Ski. “In 2004, its market share reduced for the first time in many seasons as accommodation prices had risen beyond the market’s ‘willingness to pay’. They were starting to lose the traditional customer base in its continuing attempt to reposition itself from a budget to quality destination. Several years of market share decline followed.”
Losing such a chunk of market share could be regarded as an epic fail, but that's not how the market changes are regarded in Andorra. Many of the resorts that had a tatty, downmarket feel in the 1980s now feel decidedly plush, and rather more 'Swiss' than the popular perception of Andorra.
So has it all worked?
Well the Pyrenean principality realised they'd had a ball through the latter half of the 20th century, with its best-value reputation, but that it couldn't go on, and were brave enough and smart enough to make tough decisions and reposition the country for the 21st century. Turning the ship around has taken the best part of a decade but the latest data from the UK ski industry is that it is paying off and Andorra is growing its market share once again, up for the past three seasons in a row (since 2009), and is now back to 6.5%, pushing just ahead of Switzerland as fourth most popular ski destination for Brits.
“It’s a fact that not many people know: Andorra is the fourth biggest market for British skiers after France, Austria and Italy," says Marion Telsnig. "In fact back in 2002/3 they almost made it to third-most-popular with 14.1% of the tour operator market nearly catching Italy then on 15.7%. While they were repositioning themselves in new market place they did drop to fifth, behind Switzerland, for a few seasons, but since 2009/10 they have been back to fourth place and since then their lead over Switzerland has been increasing and the most recent statistics last season put them back to 6.5% of the market share.”
The new Andorra - what you get
Bigger ski areas
Andorra now has just two ski resorts as the smaller areas have merged: Grandvalira and Vallnord.
Grandvalira, the largest resort in the country, created by the merger of Soldeu El Tarter and Pas de la Casa ski areas (once fierce rivals), now offers four- and five-star hotels, the only igloo village outside the Alps, hosts World Cup racing, and has extended its runs over the border into France.
Grandvalira is now one of the world's 30 biggest ski resorts with more than 200km of piste and the first resort outside the Alps to officially offer more than 200km of ski runs, moving it into the global big league. Its 66 lifts, which include 20 high-speed detachable quad and six-seater chairlifts, along with three gondolas, give a combined uplift of more than 100,000 skiers per hour – a combination of speed and capacity matched by less than a dozen resorts worldwide. To pay for it all lift pass prices have moved up from some of lowest towards the most expensive in Europe, but this is part of the repositioning of Andorran skiing and you can see where the money is being spent.
Along with Grandvalira, Vallnord is made up of three former smaller areas: Pal and Arinsal (connected by a gondola) and Ordino (Arcalis) which remains a separate centre, although it too offers a host of high-speed detachable four- and six-seater chairs and boasts the best snowfall record in the principality. In Vallnord there are fewer runs and lifts than Grandvalira, but the prices are lower and the same focus on quality.
With its southerly latitude, snow-making has become increasingly vital to maintain their reputation through poor snow seasons (although it should be noted that sometimes, as in 2012-13, the Pyrenees receive more snow than the Alps). Grandvalira is now one of the planet’s biggest and most modern snow-makers with more than half of its terrain covered by 1,000 snow cannons. Vallnord operates similar percentages but with a smaller total area there are fewer cannons – a total nearer 500.
Andorran resorts have been spending on 'alternative facilities' besides skiing and shopping, particularly high-class swimming and leisure complexes. These include the most dramatic building in the capital La Vella, only a few minutes from both ski areas, the spectacular Caldea 'Thermoludic Centre' where mirrored glass crystal spires cut the skyline. A serious health centre, it features a vast array of luxurious pools as well as health and beauty treatments. In addition the village of Canillo, linked by gondola in to Grandvalira, is home to an excellent indoor sports centre, Andorra's national facility, including a swimming pool and ice rink.
The other improvement designed to attract a more upmarket sector involves concentration on the construction of four- and five-star accommodation. While you can still find low-priced apartments, the range of quality accommodation on offer is a rather new thing. The best of the slope-side hotels is the five-star Hermitage and nearby Sporthotel in central Soldeu. In La Vella the five-star Hotel Plaza is arguably the pick of the bunch for the best quality.
Along with their expansion on the mountains, both ski areas have been increasingly aware of their environmental responsibilities. They were quick to adopt international environmental standards certification such as ISO 14001, which surprised many in the ski industry as they became pioneers in green skiing ahead of resorts better-known for having a green ethos.
Shop till you drop – still
Although the rising price of lift passes has made Andorran skiing cost more than many French Pyrenees and some Spanish ski areas, reducing its appeal among skiers in bordering nations (although to be fair the Andorran ski areas do generally offer more for the money), the duty-free shopping, centred on capital Andorra La Vella, the main shopper's paradise reputed to be home to 1,000 shops, continues to be a major draw. Indeed the Russian market has boomed here as Russians flood in looking for bargains.
Despite the move towards more upmarket ski holidays, Andorra continues to retain a hardcore party reputation, particularly at the resorts of Arinsal and Pas de la Casa.
Both have compact centres with a dozen or so small-to-medium sized bars in each. Service by English or Antipodean bar staff is the order of the day, with prices equivalent to those 'back home' or better, so they're lively as soon as the lifts close.
A number of music festivals have been based in Andorra in recent years. Firstly the Big Snow Festival kicked off in Arinsal, to be followed by Pas Rocks. New for 2012-13 was Snowboxx, tag-line ‘Ibiza on Ice.’
During their repositioning in the market, Andorran ski pass prices moved from among the cheapest in Europe to among the most expensive. Passes for individual ‘sectors’ of Grandvalira and Vallnord were phased out and a more expensive collective pass issued, the only type available. Although rather a price-shock to skiers, at least the more expensive passes could be justified with all the flash new lifts, runs and snowmaking. Over the past few years there has been some repositioning back down a bit and low season passes have been launched bringing prices down again slightly. In any case for apres-ski and accommodation, duty-free Andorra remains one of the more affordable destinations (so long as you don’t book in to those new five star hotels) so in comparison to the big-name resorts in the Alps prices are pitched, overall, somewhere around mid-market for a ski area of comparable size.
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