European Governments Weigh the Importance of an Operating Ski Season during Covid-19

Ischgl, Austria – Large numbers of visitors during the holidays raises concerns regarding the resort’s preparedness.

As the holiday season approaches, European ski resorts are amongst the most heavily impacted industries by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The second wave of cases has prompted Europe’s politicians to further delay the opening of the active and much-anticipated winter destinations. Italy’s ski resorts earn about 11 billion euros annually, a third generated during the holidays. France’s ski resorts employ over 120,000 seasonal workers and generate about 10 billion euros annually, a quarter from the holidays. Combined, the two nation’s resorts attract millions of tourists each year, led by La Plagne in France, which annually attracts 2.5 million tourists on average.

Nonetheless, Italy, France, and Germany favor closing ski resorts through mid-January at the earliest. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron, calling for the widespread shutdown of winter sports until January to avoid further spreading the virus. In response, Jean-Lu Boch, mayor of La Plagne and president of the lobby group France Montagne, said according to The Guardian, “We don’t understand. This is a huge blow for regions that rely on winter sports for up to 40% of their economy.” 

After failing to reach an agreement with other European countries about the shutdown, Merkel told the German parliament according to The Guardian, “If you listen to noises coming out of Austria, it sadly doesn’t currently look like we will find an easy solution—but we will try again.” 

Austria’s Alpine resort, Ischgl, is considered the heart of the European outbreak of the virus. There, hundreds of skiers became infected due to après-ski activities such as parties and other social gatherings. The skiers then brought the virus with them back to their countries. Austria’s public health agency estimated 800 infected Austrians and up to twice the amount in German and Scandinavian countries.

Austria still plans to reopen Ischgl along with the rest of their ski resorts—16 of which attract over one million visitors, making Austria the most popular European country for skiing. Given that Austria’s ski resorts contribute about 15% to the country’s GDP, the Austrian economy must maintain some profit from the winter athletics season. Austria’s finance minister, Gernot Blümel, stated that “If the EU does in fact force skiing areas to stay closed, that will mean costs of up to 2 billion euros. If ski resorts have to stay shut, the EU has to offer compensation.”

However, there would be new guidelines to prevent another Ischgl-like situation. Austria plans only to open their ski slopes—not the surrounding hotels or restaurants. The ski slopes would thus be mostly composed of locals who can make day trips.

Austria is not the only country that disagrees with their neighbors’ proposal. Switzerland is also adamant about keeping their resorts open and opening those that have not already. 

Entire regions of Switzerland depend on winter sports. In Grindelwald, a mountainous region located in the center of the country, two new ski lifts that cost $500 million were opened. After years of planning and building, the chairlifts would be able to carry skiers up to the slopes in a few minutes. Grindelwald needs customers to maintain and profit from the much-anticipated addition to the mountain. 

Regardless, Switzerland’s neighboring countries are encouraging the Swiss government to close the resorts until mid-January at least. According to BBC News, Swiss health minister Alain Berset stated Switzerland won’t “react to pressure [from countries such as Germany], as Switzerland is not even in the EU.”

Now, the Swiss government finds itself in a dilemma. By closing the ski resorts, they open themselves to the frustration of desperate and politically powerful alpine cantons. Keep the resorts open, and face their powerful neighboring countries’ fury. The government is currently staying true to Berset’s statement, keeping their resorts open—but with new restrictions in place.

Swiss resorts aim to maintain social distancing in queues, strict limits on après-ski gatherings, reduced numbers in cable cars, and mandatory mask-wearing on lifts. The epidemiological situation must be favorable, and there must be space in the hospitals for both ski-related injuries and Covid-19 patients. A failure to adhere to these guidelines may result in that resort losing their permit.

In response to Switzerland’s decision, France and Germany have taken steps to essentially seal off their borders. France will conduct border checks to stop citizens from skiing abroad, and Germany will impose strict quarantine on returning citizens.

Whether the Swiss or Austrian approach will succeed would be determined in mid-January, after assessing infection rates post-holiday season.

By Michael Hlavaty

Photo from Shutterstock.