UK tour operator Le Ski is anxiously waiting for a French court to decide in February whether the company was illegally providing employees to show holiday skiers around the pistes in the Three Valleys last season. Le Ski is being prosecuted for allegedly breaking French laws and many tour operators have suspended their ‘hosting’ programmes until the judgment is handed down.
Tour operators are widely regarding this as a test case and, if the judgment and subsequent appeals go against Le Ski, UK tour operator guiding will no longer be legal in French ski resorts.
The services of tour operator ski guides (now generally called ‘hosts’ or ‘leaders’ to avoid contentious use of the word ‘guide’) are a valuable part of the holiday for many British skiers - not only those visiting unfamiliar resorts, but also those skiing solo, who can find ready-made ski buddies by joining a guided group.
Under French law, the prosecutors claimed the employees must be fully-fledged ski instructors with the highest qualifications to be allowed to act as a ski host in France. The prosecutor acknowledged that the issue of ski hosting by UK tour operators has become a very important political point and that its national ski school, the L’Ecole du Ski Français (ESF), had to be protected from unqualified hosts.
The ESF has associated itself with the prosecution and is currently claiming compensation for lost business. Nick Morgan, MD of Le Ski, said: ‘We told them that our ski hosting did not lose them business and that, indeed, tour operators with hosts send the ESF huge amounts of business, which they might lose if hosting was stopped and clients chose to go to other countries. It is nonsense to argue that ski schools lose out because of it, because our hosts do not give any instruction and our clients would not pay instructor prices just to be shown around the mountain.’
During a four-hour hearing in front of three judges in early January, lawyers for Le Ski said that EU law does not support the French protectionism case and that, if Le Ski loses here, it will appeal right up to the European Court of Justice in Brussels.
In North America nearly every ski resort provides free ‘piste orientation’ tours by volunteers once or twice a day and do not see it as a threat to their ski school business. On the contrary, they see it as an essential attraction that brings more people to their resort and results in more lift passes being sold and more money spent in the resort.