I remember vividly where I was when I received the news that Italy’s ski resorts would be closing to help curb the spread of coronavirus, back in early March: I was doing my weekly food shop.
At that point, between the fruit and veg aisle and the butcher’s counter, and while the shelves were still stocked high with toilet paper, I had no idea that the rest of the world would follow suit, the ski season would effectively be over, and life as we knew it would be thrown into turmoil.
A lot has changed since then – and yes, many people face far greater hardships than the loss of a ski trip – but to hear that resorts will again remain shut is even more devastating now than it was back in March.
The news yesterday that Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, is calling for a ban on ski resorts opening across Europe until next year, was a bitter pill to swallow. A blanket approach such as this would be disastrous for ski resorts and the businesses that operate in them – and it is totally delusional.
Unfortunately, however, it seems he may be already some way towards getting his wish: France’s President Emmanuel Macron said last night he thought it “impossible” for the country’s resorts to open again this year.
My hopes now lie with the Austrians and Swiss. The latter has remained steadfast in their approach and have refused to close ski resorts or postpone openings despite the actions of their neighbours – proscht to that! And according to reports, the Austrians are “lukewarm” about the idea of a Europe-wide ban on skiing – despite their resorts currently being shut until December 6.
“If the EU does in fact force skiing areas to stay closed, that will mean costs of up to €2 billion. If that is what the EU really wants, it will also have to pay for it,” Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel said in a statement. A ministry spokesman said that was a rough estimate of the cost for just one month over the Christmas period.
The figures are simply staggering. Ski resorts in France employ roughly 120,000 seasonal workers – people who are highly trained and passionate about snow sports. In Italy, winter tourism provides jobs for 400,000 Italians, from ski instructors and hoteliers to restaurant owners, accounting for roughly €10 billion – a third of which is made during the lucrative festive period.
Tragically, people are still dying from the virus: yesterday the average seven-day death counts in France and Italy were 16,723 and 692 respectively. But a blanket ban on trading is not the solution to saving lives.
The number of people in ski resorts who will now be left out of work during a critical period for business, and potentially see their livelihoods shattered if ski resorts remain shut, is terrifying. And what of the ripple effect this will have on the British companies and seasonal workers who’ve been holding out over the summer, waiting for winter, for the chance to recoup losses from the early end to last season?
Ski resorts have, once again, drawn the short straw.
Summer destinations had a fair run of it in July and August, when travel corridors were in abundance, spirits were high, and holiday bookings skyrocketed. Now for the second time in the pandemic the ski industry is staring straight down the barrel of months without bookings.
While ski resorts were delivered some respite over the summer when domestic tourism in the Alps flourished, that’s no replacement for the popularity of the ski season – in particular at Christmas and New Year. Ski holidays are these resorts’ bread and butter: without them, the Alps will be starved for another season and I am not the only one to worry that many companies might not survive the famine.
Putting my own lust to return to the slopes aside (it’s been 303 days since I last skied in the Alps, not that I’m counting), my thoughts turn to the self-employed ski instructors, independent chalets, hotels, bars and restaurants and to the post-college or university students who were hoping to spend a season working in the mountains. It’s not just the small guys who are struggling to stay afloat either: even the major operators are doing all they can not to sink.
Enough is enough, ski resorts have already been dealt enough blame for the coronavirus pandemic. I can’t help suspect they’re being treated as various governments’ scapegoats as ministers struggle to understand how to get a grip of this virus.
Prime Minister Conte is no doubt concerned that if he closes his country’s resorts and his neighbours don’t, then Italians will simply hope across the border and get their ski thrills elsewhere – tough, sir. You may be set on crippling the fragile economies of mountain communities in Italy, but there’s no need to bring the entire Alps down with you.
Conte fears skiers and snowboarders will bring the virus back with them from the slopes, as was the case last winter – the controversy surrounding the Austrian resort of Ischgl is all too fresh in everyone’s minds.
But we’re eight months on now – the thought that travellers will once again be the root of the spread of the virus is unfounded, there are precautions in place to stop that from happening. Testing is widespread across the continent and quarantine systems are in place. Ski resorts have worked tirelessly to implement new rules too – face masks on lifts, in restaurants, bars, and as an essential for ski school; social distancing measure in queues; hefty investments in disinfectant techniques for lifts; and the curtailment of apres-ski. The list goes on.
President Macron has a lot to answer for too, today. Forgive me but I struggled to see the logic that drives the decision that it’s fine to open cinemas and theatres, where people sit inside in close proximity to one another for prolonged periods of time, but not acceptable to allow people to exercise in the mountains, where the air couldn’t be fresher and space more abundant.
French resorts are quite right to be “surprised” by the plans to lift the country’s lockdown rules announced last night – which avoid mentioning if or when they can reopen.
Surprised, saddened or downright furious: any or all of the above would go some way in explaining how skiers feel right now about the prospect of a ski-less festive period.