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tignes franceFrance could see a Brit backlash this winter following the French court ban on ski hosting by British ski operators. Britain’s biggest ski tour operator Crystal confirmed this week that pending an appeal in February 2014 against the test-case prosecution of UK firm Le Ski, it will not be offering its ski hosting service in French resorts this winter.

And Simon Cross, Crystal’s managing director, warned that the French ban could see UK skiers voting with their skis. Crystal itself will be offering its full ski hosting service in other resorts throughout the rest of Europe.

Ironically, the warning comes just as Crystal announced that France was once again the top destination for UK skiers – its market share even improved slightly last winter to just under 35%.
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Ski hosting was declared to be in breach of a French law that forbids anyone from guiding groups of skiers around the slopes unless they are fully qualified ski and snowboard instructors. The law was originally introduced to try and stamp out illegal instruction.

However, the British firms say that ski hosts do not give any form of instruction. Their role is to show guests around the ski area, introduce them to different pistes, and point out the best lunch spots and bars. They do not take guests off-piste or down difficult runs.

The service has been hugely popular with British skiers who readily appreciate the familiarisation tours by the reps – and it makes financial sense for the resorts themselves. Restaurateurs benefit from a steady stream of hungry Brits piling into their eateries, and bars make a killing from thirsty Brits enjoying their hosts’ après tips.

The ban followed the test-case prosecution of Nick Morgan, managing director of Huddersfield-based Le Ski, which operates in Courchevel, La Tania, and Val d’Isere. Le Ski had offered free ski-hosting to guests for the past 30 years. He was fined €15,000. The case arose when, last March, a group of Le Ski guests and their host were stopped and questioned by police while skiing in Meribel.

Crystal MD Cross stopped short of predicting a boycott of French resorts, but did say that the ‘social skiing’ service is a big plus factor for many skiers in deciding where to go. ‘We’ve been offering this service for many years – it’s core to our product,’ he said. ‘There are people who value ski-hosting quite highly. For them it may be a factor in their decision on where to go. People are starting to ask us about next winter. We have to say that we can’t offer that service at the moment.’

He added that Crystal reps would be providing familiarisation information in advance and at the lifts, but would not be leading tours. ‘It’s a shame that there are any barriers put in the way of people who just want to get on the mountain. We have warned French resorts that it could have an impact.’

In North America and Canada, many ski resorts – such as Whistler, Banff/Lake Louise and Vail – offer free mountain tours to orient their guests, and to help them get the most from their ski holiday. Their ski hosts – often called buddies or friends – are invariably volunteers from the local community who, in return for a season’s pass, give up a few hours of their time a week to show guests around the mountain. As locals, they are often a mine of fascinating facts and information about their ski hills.

The 2012-13 ski season finally saw a rise in the numbers of Brits taking ski holidays. According to the annual Ski Industry Report, just under 900,000 of us travelled abroad last winter. The increase was small – 5,000 skiers, just one per cent – but the ‘green slopes of recovery’ will be welcomed after four years of decline. Cross put the increase down to spectacular snow in Europe last winter ‘which came early and stayed late’ as well as an early Easter, and Christmas and New Year falling midweek.

Among tour operators Crystal retained its place at the top of tree, increasing its market share by three per cent to 44%. Its parent company Tui Ski has nearly 52% of the overall UK market.

France continued to be the most popular destination for Brits – up .2% to 34.8%, but in second place Austria increased its share from 27.9% to 28.2%. Italy’s share slightly decreased, but there were welcome uplifts for Andorra – up to 6.6% - and Switzerland, which leapt .6% to 5.5% as the Swiss National Bank continued to cap its exchange rate.
The US saw a drop, especially in Colorado, whereas Canada grew its share, through some exceptional strong marketing campaigns. In total, though, the North American market was down from 4.5% to just 4%.


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