French authorities in the Alps threaten the future of ski companies who offer to show their guests around the slopes.
It is as essential an element of many ski holidays as fondue Savoyard and Europop discos. But now the custom of offering British holidaymakers an informal tour of the pistes, to help them find their way round the lifts and runs in an unfamiliar resort, is under threat from the French authorities.
A British ski company is being prosecuted for allegedly breaching French ski safety law after police intercepted a member of its staff accompanying a group of holidaymakers in an alpine resort.
In what is being seen by British firms as a test case that could put an end to a popular service provided to their guests, Yorkshire-based Le Ski, which takes 5,000 tourists to the Alps each year, will appear in court next month.
The French authorities claim that the “ski hosts” – who show chalet guests around the slopes, taking them to the nicest runs and the best hot chocolate stops but who are not qualified as instructors or guides – present a danger to guests.
The case has in effect set the British tour operators against their French colleagues in a dispute that has echoes of previous attempts by French ski instructors to prevent any other nationality teaching skiing in their resorts.
“We have decided not to take this lying down,” said Nick Morgan, who founded Le Ski with his sister 30 years ago. “We don’t believe what we do is illegal, and we don’t want to set a precedent for the industry.
“The law in question is a very specific law, relating to qualifications for teaching and guiding. But is a ski host a guide or a teacher? Most people would say no.”
Andrew Stothert, who has taken his family on holiday with Le Ski ever since the company was begun, said the service was “absolutely brilliant”.
“It’s a fantastic part of the holiday,” he said. “They break the groups up by ability, and if you’re a casual skiier like my good self you cruise around the runs being taken to the best hot chocolate stops.
“We certainly wouldn’t go to the ski school for a professional guide, as we’re not looking for anything that extreme. So it’s not taking money away from the economy.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me, and the whole thing seems to be more about protectionism.”
Lucy Fisher, 25, who has worked for Le Ski for the past three years, showing guests around the slopes of Courchevel, said: “It would be a terrible shame if we had to stop doing this. It’s a really big part of the experience and brings everyone together.
“You tell your guests ‘I am not an instructor, please don’t follow in my tracks’ – it’s not teaching or guiding at all. And it’s crazy because I have often recommended French ski schools to the clients.”
The current row is the latest in a long line of disputes between the French and British ski professionals. The French lost a long-running battle to prevent British-qualified ski instructors from teaching in their country in 2000, and have grumbled ever since about the Britons taking away trade.
In response, the British say that the French are acting out of protectionism. In February this year French newspaper Libération poured fuel on the flames with an article headlined “After the Polish plumber, the English ski instructor”, which lamented the increasing number of British instructors on the slopes.
The particular dispute began when a ski host in his twenties, employed by Le Ski, was stopped by gendarmes on the pistes in Meribel – a popular destination for British skiers, in the Trois Valles region of France. The ski host, who has not been named, was informed in front of his startled guests that his actions were illegal, and was told to report to the Courchevel gendarmerie that day.
“The police really interrogated him,” said Mr Morgan, whose company owns 29 chalets in Courchevel, La Tania and Val d’Isere. “We know our local gendarmes and have a good relationship with them, but this one was from out of town and was conducting random checks on anyone who he thought was instructing people.
“I then went to see the policeman, and spent a whole day with him explaining that we didn’t teach, but offered a fantastic free service for anyone who wanted to know where the most suitable runs were. It’s bonkers that they have taken us to court over this because we firmly believe that it is safer to ski with a host who knows the mountain than on your own.”
The prosecutor at Albertville did not agree, and Mr Morgan will appear representing his company before a judge on January 7. The ski host himself has not been summoned.
Meanwhile the French ski instructors’ union has taken up the cause, joining the French gendarmes in pressing charges, and the French Ski School (ESF) in Meribel is claiming €12,000 (£9,700) in damages.
Jean-Marc Simon, director of the ski instructors’ union, said at the time: “This is purely about ski safety. We cannot have unqualified people taking groups of skiers around the mountain. We did not instigate this investigation, but as people responsible for mountain safety we must support the authorities.”
Mr Morgan said: “It’s laughable to suggest that, instead of taking up our free hosting service, you’d go to the ESF and pay €300 for a day’s ski guiding.
“They are two completely different services. And we think they are complimentary; we never take our guests off piste, and nor do we offer instruction, so if anyone wants that we direct them to the ESF. So by challenging the British ski operators they are really not doing themselves any favours and it is totally unnecessary.”
One ESF insider told The Sunday Telegraph that the union was acting to “protect the profession” and had to be seen to be defending the law.
A meeting was held in London last month to try and resolve the issue, with representatives from some of the biggest tour operators – Inghams, Esprit Ski, Ski Total, Crystal, Zenith, Thomson, First Choice, Neilson, Ski Olympic, Erna Lowe, Skiworld and the Ski Club of Great Britain – sending representatives in support of Le Ski. But the meeting broke down without a solution.
One of those present told the PlanetSKI website that it was heated at times as the British put their view across, but that ESF – the largest ski school in the world, with an annual turnover of €250 million – was intransigent.
“We got a Gallic shrug of the shoulders,” a source said. “At one point the leader of the ESF delegation was texting on his phone and did not appear even to be listening to our point of view.”
Andy Perrin, CEO of Inghams, said: “Given the long history of mutual co-operation between the ESF and British ski operators, it is deeply disappointing that this matter has blown out of all proportion.
“There is a huge and critically important difference between ‘guiding’ and the very different services our staff provide. ‘Guiding’ is highly technical, requiring qualified mountain guides. It generally involves skiing off-piste or ski-touring, and frequently the imparting of hints and tips and direction from the instructor to improve his or her customer’s ski technique. This is emphatically not what we do.
“On that basis, we shall continue to provide this social service which our guests hugely appreciate, whilst at the same time we will also continue, as we have done for decades past, to provide millions of euros of business to our partner French ski-schools every winter, from all our guests who want actual instruction or a full-on mountain-guiding experience.”
The head of one ski school in the area told The Sunday Telegraph that they were working behind the scenes to find a compromise solution, but the British operators are concerned that the French authorities seem to want to make an example out of the case.
“Ski hosting is a nice way of getting to know chalet guests, showing them around and giving out hints and tips on where to go,” said Vicky Morgan of the Ski Club of Great Britain. “They are absolutely not qualified to instruct, but it’s all about releasing guests from the need to look at piste maps every five minutes.
“It’s an issue that has been simmering away for a while. I think everyone is keen to get it clarified and will be watching the case with interest.”