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After President Macron postponed the opening of French ski resorts to 20 January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been asking for an EU-wide agreement on keeping the slopes shut across the region, both saying they would review the situation in relation to post-Christmas spikes in Covid-19 infection rates.
Many countries have agreed–Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte said Tuesday that people should avoid the pistes over Christmas and Bavarian state premier Markus Söder added that packed resorts, lifts and bars could “thwart all the efforts made by the population at large” to keep the pandemic under control.
Not everyone is onboard
Switzerland is keen to keep its ski resorts open with people wearing masks and socially distancing and it is expecting an influx of EU tourists over Christmas. Health Minister Alain Berset said, “in Switzerland, we can go skiing, with protection plans in place.”
The Irish Times reported that a clearly angry Austrian tourism minister, Elisabeth Köstinger, said Austria wouldn’t be told what to do by another country. “We will not let another country stipulate when and what we will open,” she said, “just as we would also never offer the suggestion to France on when it should open the Louvre, or tell Germany that it has to, for example, close its schools or hairdressers”.
Schools and shops are currently closed in Austria’s second national lockdown and Köstinger said that how the ski resorts open would be dependent on infection data, with public health the greatest priority.
On Monday, the Austrian ski association (ÖSV) wrote an open letter to the government asking it not to delay the start of the season and to ignore “pressure from Berlin, Munich, Rome and Paris”. Winter tourism brought in €14.9 billion ($18 billion) to Austria in 2019 and Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Blümel estimated that experts had valued a shutdown of Austrian resorts at €2 billion ($2,4 billion).
One of the problems appears to be the political influence that Austrian ski operators have; many won’t reduce the maximum number of people allowed on ski lifts.
People are also worried about how to limit spontaneous après-ski parties, which Köstinger has said she won’t allow. Austrian ski resorts’ reputation have suffered from the handling of the health crisis in mid March; the Austrian resort of Ischgl was a hub for many Covid-19 outbreaks, as returning tourists who had partied and skied, spread the virus through their home populations.
However, Austrian media were reporting Tuesday evening that the government would probably agree to demands from the other EU nations.
The impact has already been severe
Four U.K. tour operators were immediately forced to cancel all ski holidays to Europe in December leaving many chalet workers, operators, ski instructors, waiters and other seasonal workers to wonder if the season was over before it began–France employs 120,000 seasonal workers, Italy about 400,000 people.
James Gambrill, CEO of the Mountain Trade Network (MTN), stated that it “could be at least three months (February), possibly four (March), until U.K. visitors return in large numbers to the slopes of Europe”.
The issue is complicated for seasonal British workers who won’t be able to work in the EU if there isn’t a Brexit deal–currently they can stay in the EU without a specific work visa for the 2021 season in its entirety but if they cannot start work until well into 2021, this would change the ruling.
If open, many resorts hope for a domestic bump
Nadine Carle-Edgar, who represents six French ski regions, including Savoie Mont Blanc expressed confidence about the French ski season, telling The Guardian that they “expect to have mainly French visitors but hope the British can come.”
Prime minister Jean Castex has said that although French people cannot currently ski, they can visit alpine regions. Most ski resorts have strong domestic ski markets and many Alpine resorts have done well from the fact that–when allowed to travel internally–people have headed to the mountains over the summer, rather than abroad.
In the U.K., many ski professionals expect that Scotland will see a boom this season as people head for a Scottish mountain. Rob Stewart, founder of Ski Press PR, who represents clients in the ski industry agreed, but said that while Scotland is a wonderful choice, “it’s not the Alps, not even close, not comparable at all. It’s a harsh environment, the weather is unpredictable and the snow even more so.”