As we approach an end to Covid restrictions on home soil, thoughts turn to much needed foreign holidays. For many Britons, myself included, the priority will be the thrill of speeding down Alpine ski slopes, stopping off for some après-ski entertainment and finishing the day with a home-cooked meal in a luxurious chalet.
However, when skiers finally get out to the UK’s favourite ski resorts, such as Méribel and Val d’Isere, they might not recognise their beloved ski holiday. Things are set to change in the mountains as a direct result of the UK leaving the European Union and the end of freedom of movement.
As part of the EU single market, generations of skiers have been hosted in chalets or met at the airport by staff from the UK. These, mainly young, workers were recruited and employed by British travel companies and then seconded for a winter season to run operations and look after holidaymakers in European ski resorts. Others taught water sports in the summer, worked in bars, ran campsites, or worked as nannies as they travelled and worked freely across Europe.
For many, the training and experience gained from these seasonal jobs opened doors to careers in tourism – and the value of hospitality and tourism to the UK economy runs into billions – as well as embedding valuable life skills. I am an example of that. I spent six years working the winter in Méribel, France, and I am now the managing director of European Pubs Ltd, a UK company that runs bars and restaurants in the French Alps, and the director of Seasonal Businesses in Travel (SBIT).
For UK travel companies the employment of English speakers was straightforward. UK employment contracts could be used, social security and tax continued to be paid in the UK, there were thousands of willing UK applicants that wanted to experience the joys of working in a ski resort, and there was little or no paperwork to complete. It was as easy as travelling to Edinburgh to work.
The numbers of UK staff that worked in this manner were quite staggering. SBIT calculated that before the Brexit referendum 25,000 Britons would work across the EU each year in the tourism industry, delivering UK holidays – 87 per cent of these staff were under 34 years old.
But while the world has been occupied with the crippling pandemic things have changed. Now the UK is outside the EU single market and those jobs are largely closed off to UK citizens, due to some formidable barriers.
Take France for example: if a UK travel company wants to employ a British citizen to work in a ski chalet they must go through the same process as if they wanted to employ a Nepalese or Moroccan citizen. First, they need to prove that no French person is available to do the job, by advertising for three weeks in an unemployment office; second, the company needs to offer a conditional role to the UK applicant; third, the company needs to apply and pay for a French work permit; and finally, the member of staff needs to apply and pay for a French working visa. The process to obtain all these documents is likely to take around four months and at any point the prospective UK member of staff can be rejected and therefore unable to work the winter season. How does this impact holidaymakers? Simple – this could leave the UK company unable to deliver the holidays that they have sold.
As a result, many UK travel companies are not even accepting applications from British citizens, unless they have a dual passport or a right to reside in an EU country – a devastating decision for the thousands of young Britons who have hopes of working a ski season, as well as those skiers who enjoy their familiar hosting skills when on holiday.
In the wake of a pandemic, it may seem reasonable for UK travel companies to look to a domestic workforce first: French or Italian for instance. Yet many of these jobs are seasonal, covering peak periods of holiday travel only. They are also often in remote locations and require a move for the season away from home – something the many domestic workers are unwilling to do. Employers in many countries are already reporting labour shortages ahead of next winter.
When the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 few people realised the potential impact on ski holidays. That impact is now being felt profoundly by the industry and will shortly be seen by holidaymakers, through higher prices and an altered experience on the slopes.
Fortunately, there is a potential solution. SBIT is calling on the EU and the UK Government to work together on an extension of the existing Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme and to do so without delay. We need to give young people across the EU and in the UK the chance to gain work experience and lift experiences in our closest trading partners and use this to rebuild our economies.
This is not about immigration or even a return to full freedom of movement. This is about preserving opportunities for young people. It is the young, after all, who are bearing the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Hopefully, if our call to action is heard, many more generations of young people from all walks of life will have the opportunity of working across Europe in the tourism industry, including ski resorts, and UK holidaymakers will continue to experience the wonderful delights of a chalet holiday in the Alps, with a friendly British face to welcome them.