There is no winter sports resort like Chamonix. Nestled in the shadow of Mont Blanc, it has a sparkling history and a reputation for challenging even the best skiers.
People come from all over the world to try their luck on these tracks. And now, the British can join them again.
For almost a month, holidaymakers have been banned from crossing the English Channel due to COVID restrictions. They were introduced when the Omicron variant was dominant in the UK, but little seen in France.
Now that has changed; Omicron is ubiquitous in both countries and, after hesitating for a while, the French have reopened their border to British tourists. Many of those currently crossing are heading towards the Alps.
The only country that sends more tourists to the French Alps than Britain is France itself. In Chamonix, it is estimated that around one in four people on the slopes are British; at other stations, the ratio is even higher.
This means that there are a lot of businesses in these mountains that depend on the British. And when they stopped coming, these companies started to worry.
Shona Tate was one of the nervous. She helped found a ski school in Chamonix 18 years ago, but says the last two years have been the hardest times they have had to face. She told me that her business depended on allowing British tourists to return.
“If the restrictions hadn’t been lifted, we wouldn’t have been able to survive,” she said. “You need cash to keep going. At the moment, we don’t even pay ourselves.
“The whole industry took a hit, and it was not pleasant. But as soon as the ad came out that people could come back, well we got some nice messages from customers. They were delighted for us, and they wanted to know if they could come.
“I’m looking forward to Easter – I think it will be so much easier. Who knows what lies ahead, but we will remain positive for now. »
Not everything has been answered. Visitors must always take a COVID test before arriving, and unvaccinated tourists are not welcome. The question of whether children should have a vaccination passport has still not been resolved – but it seems very likely that they will not.
Above us, the sky is blue and cloudless. It’s the perfect day to be on the slopes; you couldn’t wish for better publicity.
Giles Bickford leans over the balcony of his chalet and points to Mont Blanc looming beyond us. The chalet is rented out to groups of tourists, mainly British, for full board holidays. It is booked out for most of the rest of the year, but those bookings were all subject to cancellation if tourists were not allowed into France.
“It completely saved our season,” he told me. “We can survive and save our season. Without this week’s change, without British tourists, it would have been difficult to pay the bills this year.
“As it happened, by getting this change in mid-January, we can survive. Later it would have been a touch and go. »
There is a shared feeling here – that disaster has been averted and the opportunity now exists to move away from the economic impact of the pandemic and its ongoing travel restrictions. That after surviving the storm, it’s time to reap the benefits.
On the mountain, the sun beats down hard, creating that curious mixture of refreshing cold and pleasant warmth that we sometimes find on a ski slope. The slopes are not crowded, but they are about to get busier. The British are coming…