Will British skiers be frozen out of Europe post-Brexit? Maybe not…the French ski resort of Les Arcs is already rehearsing a warm welcome on its slopes
Brexit Day, 3.00pm.
Back in the UK, Teresa May is triggering Article 50. In the main square of Arc 1950 ski resort in the French Alps, a pony-tailed ‘animateur’ in a yellow jacket is ‘triggering’ arrows tipped with what look like giant marshmallows at an inflatable target.
This is a Robin Hood archery tournament staged as part of Les Arcs’ Great British Celebration. On stage, a host with a microphone is trying to cajole the handful of people in the square to take part in this latest event in a week-long celebration of, well, everything great and British.
Trouble is no-one’s really biting. A few desultory father/son takers roll up for a go. ‘It’s free, it’s fun,’ says our host, unconvincingly. But on the whole, despite the high-vis Anglo/French bunting, this particular party is falling a bit flat.
Little wonder, really. It’s a blue sky day and it’s a ski resort so, Brit, French or any other European denomination, everyone with any sense is up on the slopes…skiing. But as a metaphor for Brexit Day, it’s spot on.
Perhaps they should have set up some targets with photos of Teresa May, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage (and, for balance, Donald Tusk) and invited people to cast their votes in a kind of ‘Robin Hood referendum’!
As far as I could see, despite the Anglo-French bunting draped around lifts, bars and restaurants from the top of Aiguille Rouge to the station at Bourg St Maurice, The Great British Celebration was anything but.
We Brits are clearly not the draw Teresa May might think we are. A downhill ski race the previous day attracted 15 competitors, and, well, almost zero spectators. Me, my daughter and our ski guide watched a couple of game Brit snowboarders finish their runs with a complete absence of crowds and cowbells.
Other events included a broom-ball tournament in Arc 2000 and a Franco-British sledging competition in Arc 1800. No-one can say the resort hasn’t tried.
Despite the rather embarrassing lack of interest in the Great British Celebration itself, the fact that this premier league ski resort is putting out any bunting at all for we Brits is not only surprising, given our national attitude to Europe, but is a sign that, post-Brexit, skiers, will still be welcome in at least one of the continent’s biggest and best ski areas. Certainly Les Arcs is opening its arms early.
The idea came from the Mayor of Les Arcs, Michel Giraudy, who said, simply: ‘Brexit or not Brexit, that’s not the question! The British skiers are welcome in Les Arcs like it is their home. By creating this event, we want to reassert our friendship with the British. The idea was also to make French people discover the rich Anglo-Saxon culture and to celebrate our union, here in our ski resort and on our ski slopes.’
Hard to say how much the French will have learnt about British culture, but hopefully all that bunting can be used again next winter, when the Great British Celebration will continue.
‘This is the anti-Brexit’ added Nathalie Guidon, general director of Arc 1950 Le Village. ‘We are anxious about Brexit. We don’t know the implications yet. But we want to say to all the British that they will continue to be welcome. It is important for our economy that there is no Brexit from the French Alps.’
And there’s the rub. For once, the Brexiteers’ arrogant ‘they need us’ message is not misplaced. British skiers make up 45% of non-French visitors to Les Arcs alone. Replicate that across the rest of the French Alps and to a similar extent through other European ski areas and you can see that the numbers matter. No-one yet knows the implications of Brexit on this industry – already precarious due to declining snowfall and warmer weather.
If Brexit makes it too expensive or too hard for us to buy property in the Alps, too bureaucratic for seasonnaires to work in the chalets and bars, or too pricey for less affluent skiers to visit for their annual week’s holiday, everyone loses.
There are 700 apartments in Arc 1950, for example, and 90% are owned by Brits, who then lease them back to the resort to rent out. It is unclear what the impact of Brexit will be on that particular model.
Everyone I met is concerned – from my taxi driver, to restaurateurs to the young ski instructor who was our guide around this extensive resort, always finding the best snow for the time of day – a godsend with daytime temperatures topping 17C.
Mind you, Les Arcs is one resort that can take the heat – 70% of the ski area is at over 2,000m with the runs down from the 3,226m highpoint at Aiguille Rouge still in fabulous nick, even at the end of March.
It may not be the prettiest resort, but it embodies the ‘something-for-everyone’ concept, with terrain for beginners up to freeriders. The four mountain Arcs all have their own distinct atmosphere: 1600 – pioneering architects’ experiment at the top of the funicular from Bourg St Maurice; 1800 – favoured spot for lively après-ski; 1950 – 5-star Intrawest-built ‘village’ in the style of its North American resorts; and 2000 – gateway to the freeride area and with a new five-star hotel to boot. Throw in the link to La Plagne and you have Paradiski – 425km of runs, the second-largest linked ski area in the world.
You’d have to be here a lot longer than a week to ski it all and that’s likely to keep the Brits – and everyone else – coming back here long after Brexit if May, Davis et al don’t screw the ski industry’s future.
The most confident note was sounded by Les Arcs’ director, Eric Chevalier, who told Snow: ‘I am very optimistic. Ski tourism was invented by the British and it will survive Brexit.’
British Airways/Easyjet and many others to Geneva or Lyon
Geneva/Lyon 2.5 hours; Chambery 1.5 hours
Nearest station: Bourg St Maurice (7mins via funicular to Arc 1600)
Where to stay
Snow stayed at the Residence Hameau du Glacier apartments, Arc 1950 arc1950.com
Erna Low offer 7 nights in Arc 1950 in a 2-bedroom apartment (sleeps six), week commencing 22 March 2018, from £1552.
Where to eat & drink
Arc 1950: Restaurant La Table des Lys – pan-Asian gourmet cuisine; Hemingways – burgers, pizzas and salads. Arc 1800: The Lodge – country club-style dining; Blanche Muree – mountain food and a glorious balcony view
Ski pass – Cost
€259 for six days (Les Arcs); €298 (Paradiski)
Generally uncrowded, well-groomed pistes linking the four resort centres with plenty of easy cruising and one of the best on-pistes descents in the Alps, the black into red run from Aiguille Rouge (3,226m) to Villaroger (1,200m) – snow conditions permitting!
An architect-designed resort, Les Arcs consists of four purpose-built mountain villages above the town of Bourg St Maurice. Arcs 1600 came first, in 1968, and the three others centres added in later years. Arc 1950 is the newest – and cutest – and great for families. At the foot of its slopes is the town of Bourg St Maurice, a winter destination for some direct Eurostar services from London, as well as TGV services from Paris.