Skiers and snowboarders across Europe are experiencing a roller coaster ride as doubts build over when the mountains might open for sport this winter.
Until this week, there had been some optimism among ski industry experts, with hopes that the ski season would get underway before year’s end, and perhaps the prospect of uncrowded slopes might help shrug off any fears of catching Covid.
But recent moves by Europe’s politicians to delay or restrict the opening of the winter sports destinations, means fresh uncertainty both for the ski industry and for anyone hoping to make a booking.
It’s now increasingly unlikely that Europe’s ski season will get fully underway before 2021, and even then it could be subject to last-minute cancellations and closures. One operator has described it as a “season from hell.”
Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning a ski trip to one of the continent’s main snow sport destinations.
Which places are open?
Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have called for all ski resorts in Europe to close until January to contain the spread of coronavirus.
And in a televised statement on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said it seemed “impossible” to consider opening the lifts in France’s ski resorts for the festive period, although a final decision is still to be made.
If imposed, those closures would affect many of the continent’s prime Alps ski areas and resorts in the northern Pyrenees.
Austrian officials insist its ski season can begin in December, after the country’s second national lockdown ends despite pressure from Germany to remain closed.
Austria’s huge Arlberg region – notably home to St. Anton, Lech and Zurs – and other nearby resorts such as Ischgl, a hotspot for the virus last winter, are currently scheduled to open on December 17, three weeks later than usual.
Switzerland, which is not in the EU, is also open and a number of resorts, including Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Verbier, Engelberg and Andermatt, are already offering a small number of lifts running on a limited basis, with full openings expected some time after December 5.
Resorts in Sweden, which has tightened restrictions in recent days but has never imposed a national lockdown, are also open for skiing.
Bulgaria, which is in the EU, has also reportedly rejected Germany’s call to shut ski resorts. It’s not clear yet how other destinations, including Slovenia and Spain intend to operate in coming months.
What impact will this have?
Any closures will be a huge blow for the skiing industry, which had hoped for a relatively lively season after introducing Covid measures.
“We’re disappointed,” said Olivier Desaulty, director of France’s huge Les 3 Vallees region, which claims to be the world’s largest ski area with 600 kilometers of groomed runs.
“We’ll respect the decision but it’s hard for us to understand because we’ve prepared everything.
“From December 15, French people will be able to go around France and if people come to our resorts, owners maybe, and go walking in the mountains, or to see the lakes, the shops will be open, it’s strange to say we can’t open.
“It’s very hard economically. In Les 3 Vallees our economy is based 90% on the winter season.
“Christmas is about 25% of this economy, so it’s very important for us to launch the season.”
The popular Val d’Isere resort is also ready to open, according to communications director Cecile Ferrando, who is eagerly awaiting a final decision.
“Val d’Isère was ready to welcome its clients from November 28 and it will be ready again when the health situation and the government allow,” says Ferrando.
“If the ski area stays closed, the village of Val d’Isère is open year round and remains accessible for those who want to come and recharge their batteries in the mountain air (private renters, second home owners) and more. Businesses are allowed to re-open from this weekend.
Strict new protocols
Resorts across Europe have put in place rafts of Covid protocol measures to ensure a safe environment when they are allowed to open.
Face masks on lifts, regulated lift queues, some limits on tickets sold, social distancing and mask-wearing rules in shops and restaurants.
But other than the standard Covid measures that have been put to protect skiiers, what other changes can skiiers expect once resorts re-open?
“I think service will be lighter, to minimize contact with staff, and of course some places will choose to mothball for the winter and close so maybe there will be slightly fewer restaurants available and your experience in them will be slightly different,” says Oliver Corkhill, CEO of luxury ski operator Leo Trippi.
“But the big thing will be the apres ski. It’s unlikely you’ll have swarms of people dancing on a table in the likes of St. Anton or Verbier this season. It will be table service drinks at smaller tables.”
One argument made in favor of closure is that local hospitals already inundated with Covid patients won’t be able to cope with the added burden of ski-related injuries.
“We respect, of course, the hospitals and what they say but as there has been a very big decline of people going to the hospitals we think it would have been more appropriate to decide in 10 or 15 days,” added Desaulty.
“We consider the decision too early and that’s what disappoints us,”adds Corkhill, who believes a Europe-wide protocol is likely to happen.
“If Germany and France apply pressure it will be hard for other countries not to fall in line. Austria is going to be teetering and forced into that,” he says. “I believe Switzerland will be open but it’s hard to know how to react.
“People will have to come out with more clarity because of the pressure on the resorts themselves, and the amount of hotels and so on. If an announcement came much later it would be huge.”
The lack of Christmas and New Year guests is a “painful blow to an industry that has already taken a beating,” according to Richard Lumb, co-founder and director of Kaluma Ski, an upmarket tour operator with luxury properties in Courchevel, France, and St. Anton, Austria.
The latest pronouncements are also a blow to skiers from the UK who were briefly buoyed by recent news that quarantine for arrivals into England will be cut from 14 days to five days with a negative Covid test.
But Lumb believes it could be a “feeding frenzy” when people are allowed to ski and travel.
“Demand is definitely there, that’s unequivocal,” he says. “People are yearning to get away but until we have airport testing in place and reduced quarantine everyone is sitting and waiting. It will be so last minute.”
Corkhill agrees: “If you’re an ultra-high net worth individual and you can travel, you will, but everyday people will probably just say, ‘I can’t be doing with the stress, I’ll just have Christmas at home and we’ll look to go skiing in March and April.”
Since the pandemic cut short the last winter season in the Alps, travel companies have scrambled to restructure their businesses in the face of an ever-changing news cycle around Covid.
Renegotiating leases with chalet owners so they just pay for the weeks they use, plus more flexible cancellation policies are just some of the tactics.
But for UK holidaymakers, the onset of Brexit on January 1, 2021 will also change the market in perhaps unforeseen ways.
The previous reliance on relatively cheap young seasonal staff from the UK to work in ski chalets will cease because of EU travel restrictions, leading perhaps to an uplift in prices companies will have to charge based on local employment laws.
A number of leading tour operators in the UK have already taken drastic action.
Avalanche of changes
Some companies, such as VIP Ski, which ran more than 65 luxury chalets in 10 resorts across France and Austria, have been forced to close.
“We’re fighting the perfect storm, it’s the season from hell,” says Lumb. “It’s been a roller coaster ride and a total nightmare to plan for, but you have to view it that things will get better and that should be in the cycle of this winter.
“I’m expecting occupancy to be half of last year’s which is pretty big in itself but manageable given the restructuring. But it’s crystal ball time,” Lumb added, speaking ahead of widespread calls for a unified delayed start to the season.
Corkhill agrees. “Volume is down by about 50% in terms of the number of holidays booked but it’s compensated a bit by the super wealthy booking longer stays in the mountains to have a place to go to, so they don’t need to worry about any quarantines.
“People have rented a place for two or three months but obviously that’s a very small proportion of the market.
But for anyone who does manage to go skiing when resorts open, whether that be at their local resort, or as an international visitor, they could be in for a treat, certainly early in the season.
“I think anybody that takes the bull by the horns and goes will have an amazing time,” says Lumb.
“They’ll have quieter resorts and will enjoy the slopes to themselves, so to experience it could be pretty damn cool.
“Standing on top of a mountain about to ski down is going to feel like you’re in a different galaxy compared to your normal world at the moment in and out of lockdown.”