Do they belong to the past, those end of the day in a Val-d’Isère pub stuffed with Englishmen themselves a little drunk, glancing distractedly at a Premier League match? Is this the end of tea time at the chalet, served by the fireside by a young student, half skier, half butler? The Covid-19 crisis deprives the Alps of their first foreign customers this winter when the imminent Brexit had already been a source of concern.
The romance between the British and the French Alps goes back a long way: explorers William Windham and Richard Pococke are credited with discovering the Mer de Glace in the Mont-Blanc massif in 1741. The craze has never wavered, to the point that in some corners like Chamonix we were sometimes irritated at the turn of the century by these English people who were pushing up real estate prices and serving tea with a cloud of milk. But, overall, the Alps welcome with open arms the roughly 500,000 Britons who come to ski every winter. They represent 10% of the clientele of the French massifs and much more in the major resorts of the Tarentaise, where their share can exceed 40%. Each stay, generally of a week, generates an expenditure of 700 to 800 euros per person.
According to a study by LHM Conseil for the Savoie-Mont-Blanc tourist agency – bringing together the two Savoies, or two-thirds of ski passes sold in France – France remains the leading market for British skiers (36%), far ahead of Austria (17%) and Switzerland (10%).
This year, the cake may be tiny. Citing the crisis due to Covid-19 and “A difficult travel market”, Eurostar has ended its season “Ski train”, which until now has transported 30,000 Britons each winter from London Saint-Pancras station to Bourg-Saint-Maurice (Savoie). The petitions of elected officials from the French mountains have done nothing.
Before the emergence of a mutant strain of SARS-CoV-2, which cut the UK off from the rest of Europe, the number of beds booked by UK tour operators in the French Alps was already dropping by ‘a third. The big resorts were hoping to catch up between February and April, but they now have a real English fog in front of them. Four tour operators specializing in British stays in the mountains have already closed their doors, according to Atout France.
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