A French court has held that a British tour operator - Le Ski - violated French law by giving welcome tours to participants on its ski trips. The case is an apparent victory for French ski instructors who came out against the practice.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the United Kingdom is home to a very large population of skiers. The ability level of a typical British ski group might charitably be described as “mixed” – an important detail when understanding the practice of introductory tours. However, what the Brits may lack in technique, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. Cheap, direct flights from the UK to many destinations throughout the Alps means that almost anywhere you ski in the Alps, you will come across hordes of British skiers.
According to a report published in The Telegraph, it is a common custom for British ski tour operators to give informal mountain tours to participants on the first day of a trip. The tour guides do not go off-piste and offer the service as a courtesy to familiarize newcomers with the resort. It was this practice that the French court held violated Article L.212-1 of the Code du Sport. Loosely translated, Article L.212-1 requires anyone who is paid to teach or lead a ski group to a have a certificate. Le Ski’s guides did not hold ski instructor certifications and thus were held to have violated the statute.
The Ecole du Ski Français (French Ski School) supported the decision arguing that uncertified guides were a safety concern. Ski, Esq. believes such safety concerns to be pretextual. Giving on-piste tours to introduce mostly beginner and intermediate skiers to a mountain involves only de minimis risk. Article L.212-1 certainly makes sense for off-piste guides who lead groups through dangerous terrain, but its application to ski tour operators is more appropriately viewed as economic protectionism.
Personally, I would not set off into unpatrolled or un-avalanche-controlled backcountry in the Alps without a certified guide. On the other hand, I can say from experience that the layout of large European ski resorts can be highly confusing. At first glance, a typical piste map appears to be a barely comprehensible jumble of cablecars, chairlifts and t-bars that even seasoned skiers find perplexing at first. (Seriously, can anyone honestly tell me in under 5 minutes the fastest way to get from the top of the Gampenbahn in St. Anton to Stuben on only easy pistes?) Lifts, pistes, and peaks at the top of apiste map are not necessarily higher than those on the bottom. I was happy to have tours of all the European resorts I visited and those tours were not given by certified guides or instructors in may cases, but rather by people with familiarity with the mountain.
It is Ski, Esq.’s belief that the decision will backfire on French ski guides and instructors who supported it. British tour companies will adapt. First, they might simply operate more frequently elsewhere in the Alps (I’m told neighboring Switzerland has some pretty good ski resorts too…). Second, even when tour operators go to France, British skiers are unlikely to pay a ski instructor for the type of informal welcome tour that Le Ski was providing. Newcomers will simply get disoriented more easily, lessening the chances that skier has a good first experience.
As one might expect, the decision sent shockwaves through the British ski tour industry. All have stopped the practice of ski hosting and welcome tours. Le Ski plans to appeal the decision, but French legal experts doubt the decision will be overturned on appeal.