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The future of informal slope touring led by tour operator employees is hanging in the balance because of an ongoing legal fight between UK tour operator Le Ski and the French authorities. We examine the future of ski hosting.
Ski hosting has been part of British chalet holidays for years, a great way to discover unfamiliar pistes. However, in February this year ski hosting was ruled illegal in a landmark case. Under French law, you need to have a qualification to teach or lead groups if paid. The counter argument is that ski hosting is informal, involves no tuition and no money changes hands – it’s free with a holiday.
This clash was finally played out in court after French police stopped a host employed by Le Ski on the slopes of Méribel during the 2011/12 season. Now Le Ski, supported by other British tour operators, is preparing to return to court in November to contest the decision.
“We didn’t start the fight, but we’re defending ourselves,” says Nick Morgan, managing director of Le Ski, which is responsible for bringing 5000 holidaymakers to the French Alps each year.
The prosecution’s case was backed by the Ecole du Ski Français (ESF), which has claimed €12,000 ($16,000) damages from Le Ski for loss of earnings, contesting that hosting takes trade from the school. However, it’s unlikely visitors deprived of ski hosting will turn to lessons when all they want is a social introduction to the slopes.
“What we offer doesn’t involve instruction. It’s simply a social service,” says Morgan. “I think the ESF underestimates the value ski hosting adds to a resort. The hosts help the guests fully appreciate the area. They then are more likely to come back to the same resort.”
France is the most popular country with British skiers and snowboarders, with nearly 35 per cent of the market last season, according to the 2013 Crystal Ski Industry Report. However, Andy Perrin, chief executive of tour op Inghams, says the company has fielded calls from people preferring to holiday where ski hosting is allowed. “It’s a lose, lose situation for France but good for Italy, Austria and Switzerland,” he says.
Courchevel, where Le Ski has been offering its hosting service for more than 30 years, also fears the ban could turn visitors away. The resort says, “We’re concerned that through misconstruing the reasons for this action British tourists may look to boycott French resorts. However, people were hosting skiing groups in French ski areas during their working hours without having the required professional qualifications. We’re disappointed if this legitimate legal action is misunderstood and taken badly.”
So, where does this leave Brits this season? Morgan is adamant the appeal will be won and, if not, is prepared to take it to the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime, tour operators are either cancelling hosting in French resorts, or making contingency plans. For example, Le Ski will have a host available to meet guests in the morning to discuss the day’s weather, routes and good spots for lunch. The host will then meet the guests for lunch, and meet them again at the end of the day.
Telegraph Ski and Snowboard is firmly behind Le Ski, and hopes good sense is seen so ski hosting can continue to be a core part of British chalet holidays.