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This ski season is shaping up to be a particularly cruel one for France’s resorts. Rather than rejoicing in the heavy, early snowfall this year, ski stations are chafing at the government’s order that they remain shutdown over the holiday season.
The ongoing pandemic has mountain regions, whose economies remain heavily dependent on the flux of tourists, fearing for their financial futures. Although the government has pledged financial support, many worry that stations that have already suffered several difficult years won’t make it through this crisis.
So far, the pleas for a relaxation of the lockdown are falling on deaf ears. The French government is walking a dangerous line between reopening the country for holiday travel even as COVID cases are trending back up.
With cases and hospitalizations soaring after the summer travel season, France began its second national lockdown in late October. The government began lifting the lockdown in three phases, beginning in late November when citizens could travel up to 20 km and most businesses could reopen.
The second phase began this week, with people no longer having to carry attestations to leave their homes. And travel across France was once again allowed.
However, while cases dropped from October, they did not fall as much as needed to cross various milestones. So the government is maintaining an 8 p.m. curfew. And among the restrictions in place: Ski stations must stay closed through January 7.
Ski station owners feel unjustly targeted. They point out that they’ve taken numerous precautions to keep the buildings, and particularly the lifts, safe. And in that regard, they argue that outdoor activities such as skiing or riding the lifts pose little risk.
In recent weeks, there have been marches, vigils, and angry letters written by station owners and local officials demanding that the government reverse its decision.
But from the government’s perspective, the issue isn’t so much skiing as it is traveling. The fear is that people will travel from across France and pack into hotels and other confined spaces with family and friends where they won’t wear masks or respect social distancing guidelines.
“There is insufficient awareness of the seriousness of the health situation,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said during a meeting with ski resort owners, according to La Dépêche newspaper.
This decision seems particularly frustrating given the rough years the French ski industry has endured. Thanks to climate change, seasons are becoming shorter and shorter. Last year, local officials in the Pyrénées provoked outrage among environmentalists when they hired helicopters to fly snow from nearby mountain peaks to cover some slopes.
This year, of course, snow has been plentiful and ski conditions are better than usual for this time of year. Only the crowds are missing.
A helping hand
The government hasn’t ignored the outcry. Several weeks ago, the French government announced a financial aid package for the ski economy that included extensive unemployment benefits for both full-time and seasonal workers.
But in a subsequent letter to Castex, the Chambers of Commerce and Industry from the southwest region of Occitanie again demanded that the slopes be reopened. “The year 2020 will remain a disaster from an economic and social point of view,” the letter said. It also noted that the ski slopes in southwestern France typically earn more than 30% of their annual revenues over the holiday season.
Making the situation even more confusing to some is that the slopes are not 100% closed. The government’s order is tied to ski lifts. So activities like cross-country skiing, sledding, and snowshoeing are allowed in some places. And members of ski clubs are allowed to ski.
In addition, there has been a robust debate across Europe between governments about keeping slopes closed to avoid tempting skiers to cross borders. While most have complied, Switzerland has kept its ski areas open but with strict health protocols, while Spain has opted to let its regions decide whether slopes can open.
That means those living in southwest France can reach resorts such as Baqueira just over the Spanish border in about the same amount of time as they could other French resorts. Castex has said that he is particularly worried about the Swiss Alps. The French government has attempted to warn people not to travel for skiing and threatened quarantines if they do.
Hope for 2021?
For now, ski resorts are preparing to re-open on January 7. But that is far from guaranteed.
To make the next milestone to proceed to phase 3 of the reopening, cases need to drop further. With numbers climbing heading into the two-week winter vacation, the government is going to face a tough choice on whether to let ski areas reopen.
In the meantime, resorts must still make the necessary preparations. That includes running snow-making machines to supplement natural snowfall. That snow has to be built up and maintained to ensure good ski conditions, owners have pointed out. They can’t just wait until the last minute. That means continuing to spend money on staff and supplies even if there are no skiers.
And beyond slopes, thousands of small business owners, including shops, restaurants, bars, and local craftmakers, are holding their breath to see what the new year brings. Many fear the prospect of a prolonged closure beyond January 7 that could gut the rest of the season.
The loss of the two-week December vacation period is already too much in the eyes of locals.
“I regret and still do not understand this decision,” Carole Delga, president of the Occitanie region that includes the Pyrénées, told La Dépêche. “A decision which will lead to an economic disaster in our mountain territories.”