Europe Splits on Plans for Pandemic-Hit Ski Season

Bars such as this in the resort of Ischgl, Austria will start the new winter sports season under measures to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

Europe’s multibillion-dollar winter tourism industry could be headed downhill, with countries divided on how to keep people safe at the height of a ski season marked by Covid-19.

While Germany and Italy will most likely keep the slopes closed during the winter holidays, France and Austria are reopening ski areas with the hope that security measures will be enough to control the spread of the pandemic and avoid the economic cost of missing a season.

Trade associations in Italy warn of an impending catastrophe for the winter tourism sector without the holiday season, while lack of coordination at a European level could favor the movement of skiers and tourists toward open countries.

German chancellor Angela Merkel called this week for the European Union to close all ski resorts over Christmas and New Year to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but the European Commission rebuffed her appeal.

“Skiing is a national competence, not a European competence,” said European Commission spokesperson Stefan de Keersmaecker in a press conference Thursday.

The lack of a EU-wide response would benefit Austria, a country where ski tourism is fundamental for the economy. While peak tourism season in Southern European countries is the summer, winter visitors are crucial for the mountainous ski destinations. The share of winter tourism in Austria GDP is 7.3%, with revenues of 30 billion euros ($35.7 billion) a year, according to the Austrian Hotelier Association.

“There is more room out on the slopes than there is around the Christmas tree at home. With professional safety measures like distancing rules, Christmas in a hotel is safer than at home,” said Walter Veit, vice president of the Austrian Hotelier Association.

But some skiers don’t have that feeling. Sophie Nehrer, a German skier who goes to Austria every year for a family week on the slopes, said she would keep her distance this year. .

“Covid is still around and I’m not sure it is good to be in a packed lift,” Ms. Nehrer said.

In France, winter sport resorts will be open for Christmas, but ski lifts will remain shut, Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Tuesday that coronavirus risks made it “impossible” to allow winter sports to resume quickly, adding he hoped that restrictions could be lifted in January. But France’s ski resorts didn’t agree with the decision, saying the weeks around Christmas and New Year are crucial for their survival as they account for up to a quarter of their annual revenues.

In Italy, where winter tourism generated revenue of roughly 10 billion euros ($11.91 billion) last year, a cautious approach by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was countered by the governors of alpine regions, who insist that the ski season open as long as health and safety measures are in place.

While the central government says that Christmas holidays this year must be approached in a radically different way from previous years, industry associations warn that a curb on skiing over the period would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

Valeria Ghezzi, president of the Italian trade association of cable-car operators, said that holiday revenue makes up 90% to 95% of total revenue during the winter season. “Losing the Christmas period would be a tragic blow to us,” she said.

The association estimates economic output directly connected to ski slopes to be more than EUR3.8 billion at a national level.

Ms. Ghezzi is convinced that if Austria decides to keep its slopes open during the holidays, Italian skiers will flock there even though they might need to quarantine upon return. “We will be fully subjected to that competition,” Ms. Ghezzi said.

Maria Carmela Colaiacovo, vice president of Associazione Italiana Confindustria Alberghi, the Italian hospitality industry association, said hotels in the country have experienced an 80% drop in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic. She is certain that further restrictive measures will thin input even more, with local mountain communities hit the hardest.

“Our post-Covid recovery will be marred by great social and psychological issues,” she said.

Dolomiti Superski, the company operating Italy’s largest ski-slope network, in the Eastern Alps, had been investing since the summer in a series of measures to ensure safety and distancing on the slopes, the company’s marketing director Marco Pappalardo said.

The company created an online shop to purchase ski passes instead of lining up in person, with socially-distanced pass collection. It also made a digital map informing skiers of the number of people on slopes at any given moment and built infrastructure to ensure people can line up in different queues.

“We feel hurt,” Mr. Pappalardo said of the possibility of not being allowed to open during the holidays. “We put people’s safety first, and it is irritating to see that skiing, which is a sport, is considered on the same level as crowded clubs,” Mr. Pappalardo said.

While EU members confront each other on the need of having uniform regulations, Switzerland could be the winner in this battle. Not being a member of the EU, the Swiss Alps wouldn’t be affected by a bloc-wide ski ban.

Switzerland registered 8.7 million hotel stays from European visitors in the last winter season, from November to April. Of those, 10% came from Germany.

Johannes Schultz is originally from Bremen, in northwest Germany, and he has been going to ski his entire life to Switzerland. While studying his bachelor’s degree at St. Gallen, he had the opportunity to explore different areas of the country and his favorite ski destination is the Alpine village of Verbier. Mr. Schultz said après ski should be forbidden, but he thinks skiing is safe. He plans to go for some snow this winter, as in previous years.

“As one is outdoors the entire time and fresh air seems to be key to be safe, I feel safe,” Mr. Schultz said.

Write to Maria Martinez at