Covid ended the alpine skiing season – with one exception

Covid ended the alpine skiing season - with one exception

(CNN) – France’s recent decision to shut down ski lifts due to Covid concerns will be a disappointment to many winter sports fans. For Katherine Julian Prizes, it was devastating enough to make her cry.

“There were tears in my eyes, and I felt very helpless,” Julian Precious, the mayor of the Alpine city of Megève, told CNN.

The closures, announced by President Emmanuel Macron last month, have dashed all hopes that France’s ski resorts will open during the normally crowded Christmas period – a move that will result in billions in lost tourism industry revenue.

Megève’s mayor says the town will be devastated by ski restrictions.

Gary Trebillon / Gamma Raffo / Getty Images

With the other alpine countries – Italy, Germany and Austria, following suit – Europe’s top mountain destinations will remain muted. Their snowy trails are largely unaffected by the usual rustling of skis and snowboards.

However, only 60 miles from Megève, in the same mountains, the slopes remain open for action. In the Swiss mountain town of Verbier, escalators will continue to take people to the spacious 4-Vallees ski area.

Bars and restaurants will still have customers to drink their wine and eat fondue.

Few in the ski industry in Europe will forget the experiences of last winter, when the Austrian ski resort Ischgl was, for a while, seen as ground zero on the continent.

Desperately in need of help

In Verbier, skiers are required to wear face masks in the lifts.

In Verbier, skiers are required to wear face masks in the lifts.

FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images

But the question for those affected by the lockdowns is, if it is safe for Switzerland to open its slopes, then why is it not considered safe for other countries?

In Megève, the shutdown of the ski lift would mean a loss of eight million euros (about $ 10 million). For every euro lost on the slopes, Julian Preches says, another seven will be lost in the village’s hotels, restaurants and bars.

She fears that many local firms will not survive.

“I hope to do something but we will not be able to support those companies that really need our help.”

A rare protest took place in the efficient city center of Megève on 30 November. But like the mayor, locals know there isn’t much they can do.

Michel Cougar, who manages the ski lifts in Megève, was preparing to open with social distancing measures to ensure a safe season. Instead, he is preparing to leave for most of his 250 seasonal employees.

“It’s really unfair,” said Cougar. “I worked on the COVID-19 procedures and I really hope we open our doors.”

Ten million visitors flock to France every year to ski, generating 10 billion euros and employing 120,000 people, according to industry authority Domaines Skiables.

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Lessons learned

In Bourges-Saint-Maurice, protesters carried the broken heart symbols as they demanded the government to protect their jobs.

In Bourges-Saint-Maurice, protesters carried the broken heart symbols as they demanded the government to protect their jobs.

Oliver Chassignoll / AFP via Getty Images

Other French resorts have seen protests against the decision. In neighboring Bourges Saint-Maurice, protesters carried symbols of a broken heart to express their frustration with the blanket ban and called on the government to save their jobs.

Their anger has increased with the opening of cross-border resorts in Switzerland.

The decisions to close the slopes in Germany, France, Italy and Austria were not easy. Austria originally announced its intention to go ahead with the season, but eventually bowed to pressure from its European Union partners – albeit with the exception of opening ski lifts to locals on Christmas Eve.

The aim of the decision, as Europe continues to fight the second wave of Covid-19, is to avoid the type of mass that Ischgl in Austria became synonymous with during the first.

But the cost is likely to be considerable. Skiing in Europe generates € 34 billion in revenue annually – half of the global total – according to Laurent Vanat, a ski industry consultant.

In Switzerland – which is not a member of the European Union – Laurent Faucher, director of the Verbier ski lifts, said a lot has been learned since Ischgl was identified by health officials as a key part of the first European Covid wave.

“We didn’t have any new procedures,” he told CNN.

“We didn’t have any masks, and we didn’t have social distancing, so now the game is different and we’re sure we can do the work to keep the ski resorts healthy.”

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‘Save the winter’

A protester in ski wear in Bourges Saint-Maurice.

A protester in ski wear in Bourges Saint-Maurice.

Oliver Chassignoll / AFP via Getty Images

In Verbier, skiers must now wear masks on the lifts. There are organized queues with social distancing and fewer people are allowed inside gondola lifts.

Actions are not only taken here on the slopes but also in the village where masks will be mandatory during the holiday period. Local leaders say they work hard to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

“For us, it’s not just about saving the Christmas holidays, but about saving the winter,” said Simon Weggett, director of Verbier Tourism.

“This is to save our reputation because we know that everyone is watching us and if we make a mistake and because of this mistake there is a group that we will view as a bad organization.”

Coronavirus infections are increasing in Switzerland, and the country plans from Saturday to ban almost all public events and impose further restrictions on private gatherings.

“The Corona situation is deteriorating significantly,” a Swiss government spokeswoman wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

“The intensive care units are very busy and the health workers are overwhelmed,” said Andre Simonazi.

With hospital beds in Switzerland virtually full of Covid patients, the pressure is now on the country’s resorts to offer a holiday season free of gatherings as much as possible.

It gets worse under the watchful eye of its neighbors, who have had to impose travel restrictions to prevent their fellow citizens from rushing across the border to enjoy the Swiss slopes.

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