“It’s already quieter in the village than in other years,” says Simona Altwegg from the Zermatt Tourism Association in an interview with DW. The reason for this is – of course – the corona pandemic. The slopes are open and the mountain railways are open. But ski tourists from Italy, Germany or France stay away. “The guests who are here now come almost exclusively from Switzerland,” says the tourism expert.
Alpine countries negotiate on a common line
Switzerland is currently the only Alpine country with open ski areas. In addition, Sweden, Norway and Finland have opened some of their slopes. The rest of Europe is rather critical of the winter sports season.
The governments of Germany, Italy and France are calling for the ski areas to be closed across national borders. Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she would check whether all ski regions in Europe could be closed. Previously, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had pushed forward, apparently in coordination with the German Chancellor. Because of the pandemic, he had proposed to keep winter sports areas closed until at least January 10 – the end of the winter holidays.
Strap on your skis, put on your mask and get into the lift: Mouth and nose protection is mandatory in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier
The vast majority of Germans think this is a good idea. Almost 74 percent of those questioned stated in a representative survey on behalf of the “Augsburger Allgemeine” that it was right to close European ski areas for the time being to contain the corona pandemic.
Tourism industry fears losses running into billions
For lift operators, hoteliers and restaurateurs, however, this would mean high losses – because the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are considered to be the most profitable time. In Austria, the tourism industry and politics are therefore jointly fighting against possible closings. “The decision as to whether or when ski areas are allowed to open should be made by each country independently,” said Austrian Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger to the editorial network in Germany. “We’re not going to tell France when the Louvre can reopen.”
Winter tourism is vital for the west of Austria in particular. In the 2018/2019 winter season, the country counted 73 million overnight stays and posted a turnover of 14.9 billion euros.
The Austrian government is therefore demanding compensation payments of two billion euros if the EU Commission should call for a Europe-wide waiver of skiing holidays. “The current proposal means serious economic losses for Austria,” said Finance Minister Gernot Blümel in an interview with the newspaper “Welt”. His counter-proposal: The compensation for Austria could either consist of the fact that the country would receive “more money” from the EU’s Corona reconstruction fund or could reduce its EU membership fees accordingly.
Italy’s winter tourism is also threatened with a sharp drop in sales of around 70 percent compared to the previous season due to the planned closure. In the previous season, the industry had generated 10.4 billion euros. A third of it during the days that Italians normally spend around Christmas and New Year in the Alps and Dolomites. Should the winter season only start in mid-January 2021, sales would only amount to 3.1 billion euros. This emerges from a forecast by the JFC Institute.
France: Protests for the opening of the ski lifts
France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that the French ski resorts will be allowed to open during the Christmas holidays – but the ski lifts must remain closed. This means that the start of the season for winter sports enthusiasts is also practically flat there. The French lift operators spoke of a “crazy” decision. In the southeast of the country, several hundred people demonstrated over the weekend for the opening of the ski lifts and the restaurants and bars in the winter sports resorts.
Switzerland – itself not an EU country – does not want to let the winter season slip. “The ski areas can remain open with good protection concepts and strict implementation,” said Health Minister Alain Berset.
On average, more people in Switzerland are infected with the corona virus than in Germany. Most recently, the country recorded 348 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in one week. In the same period there were 136 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Germany.
Tourism expert: “We have to stay flexible”
Corona measures vary in strictness depending on the region in Switzerland. The Valais – which also includes the Zermatt ski region – is one of the cantons hardest hit by the pandemic. Restaurants, theaters and museums have been closed there for weeks.
When queuing for cable cars and in the gondolas, mask requirements and – where possible – distance rules apply. This poses a difficult task for lift operators and tourism associations. “So far, our goal has always been to have as many people as possible at the mountain railway by 8:30 am,” says Simona Altwegg from the Zermatt tourism association of DW. But now your team has to rethink and prevent larger crowds. “Our job is simply to remain agile and flexible and to adapt to what is ordered,” says Altwegg.
Despite a number of restrictions, the mood among winter sports enthusiasts is currently very good. “The rules are observed – especially the mask requirement,” says the expert. At the same time, however, she fears high financial losses – even if the slopes and mountain railways are allowed to remain open all the time.
“Normally half of our guests come from abroad in winter,” says Altwegg. Because of the travel warnings and quarantine regulations in many countries, this season is expected to be predominantly domestic guests. “Even if more Swiss guests come this winter than usual, it will not be possible to compensate for the missing foreign guests.”
Ischgl: Superspreader location wants to impress with its hygiene concept
Last winter, the ski resort of Ischgl in Austria, known for its party scene, developed into a corona hotspot. Thousands of vacationers became infected there at the beginning of the pandemic and spread the virus across the continent. Overcrowded bars in particular were considered an ideal breeding ground for the virus to spread.
Aprés-ski goodbye: There should be no party nights like here in Ischgl, Austria (archive picture, 2016)
Since the spring, Ischgl has invested around 700,000 euros in a hygiene concept. Cameras should immediately provide information about group formation when queuing. In addition, waiting times are to be predicted and cable car cabins are to be disinfected with cold fogging devices. A system for testing guests, employees and locals is currently being expanded.
Coziness instead of hut fun
Après-ski and hut fun fall flat this winter. Not only Ischgl, but almost all ski regions in Europe have taken on this. In Zermatt, Switzerland, people are taking this change with ease. “We are not famous for our parties,” says Simona Altwegg. “But we do hope that there will be some kind of après-ski, in the sense that you can have a drink after skiing – maybe with music too.” But there is certainly no dancing on tables.