Europe’s ski resorts hope to come back from the cold

Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

At the Findlerhof restaurant, above the Swiss village of Zermatt, the terrace is packed.

This content was published on December 13, 2021 – 08:47

Sam Jones in Zermatt, Financial Times

On the first day of the season at one of Europe’s best ski resorts, staff move from table to table serving champagne and chilled wine, alternating between English, French, Italian and German to welcome guests from across the continent again after nearly two years of severe coronavirus disruption.

But the lingering uncertainty made it a difficult few weeks as the restaurant prepared to open. The Findlerhof produces most of its food and wine in October before the first snow sets in, but this year it has only brought in half of what it would normally have.

“We are all a little more careful, especially here in the mountains,” said manager Francis Schwery. “We just don’t know if the government will shut things down for a month or even two. Everyone is just a little more scared – the situation can change from day to day.

Everywhere in the Alps, the winter season is starting timidly as memories of spring 2020 loom on the horizon. Then alpine resorts such as Ischgl in Austria became notorious as coronavirus super-spreaders after remaining open even as the pandemic ravaged neighboring Italy. Visitors from across the continent partied in crowded bars and took the virus home, sparking a wave of international condemnation.

This year, the authorities are acting with caution. Austria has been stranded since late November, and the country’s low vaccination rate, coupled with the emergence of the Omicron variant, dashed hopes of an easy return to normal for its multibillion mountain sports industry. euros. Restaurants and bars across most of the country may reopen from Sunday, but at ski resorts they must remain closed.

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In France and Italy, nervousness about possible restrictions is palpable. Last season, the two countries decided early to close ski resorts for fear of repeating the first wave of the pandemic.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex said during a November trip to Manigod in Haute-Savoie that he wanted to guarantee a “dignified season”. Masks would be needed in elevators, he said, but stressed the situation should be reviewed. Covid-19 certificates attesting to a complete vaccination, a negative test or a recovery from the disease will be required to access the tracks.

In Italy, only visitors who are fully vaccinated, those who test negative or those who show proof of recovery will be able to access indoor public and entertainment spaces, including at ski resorts.

All visitors to Switzerland must have a PCR test before flying and a second PCR or antigen test between four and seven days after arrival. Bern announced on Friday that entering reception areas would now require proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. A negative test alone will not be enough.

On November 27, the federal government imposed a ten-day quarantine on arrivals from countries that have reported cases of Omicron. Bern canceled the requirement just a week later, but in the Alpine cantons the damage was done – thousands of December bookings were canceled.

According to the NZZ newspaper, a hotel in Zermatt lost 160,000 € (166,700 CHF) in customs the day after the quarantine was imposed.

Scott, a London skier queuing in acid yellow ski pants for a cable car, said the quarantine rule had nearly ruined his plans. “Normally I would ski as much of the season as possible,” he said. “It must be so damaging to the local people. . . so many lost business. There needs to be consistency. “

The region pays a high economic price if the winter sports season is slackened. In the Alps themselves, winter tourism dominates local economies, accounting for up to half of the jobs in some villages in high season. Skiing is responsible for around half of Switzerland’s tourism revenue, contributing around 2.5% of gross domestic product, according to government statistics. In Austria, industry accounts for up to 4% of GDP, according to official figures. By comparison, the automobile industry in Germany accounts for 5% of the GDP.

No one wants a repeat of last season when billions in revenue were lost. Trust is crucial, says Martin Nydegger, Managing Director of the Swiss Tourism Association. “Quarantines are the number one killer in tourism, there is no sugar to coat it.”

This year, he estimates the number of visitors to the country’s tracks could reach around 80% of its 2019 peak if governments don’t panic. He hopes Switzerland’s reputation for orderly and cleanliness will give tourists confidence that the country is safe and open.

“We have working vaccines, we have a testing regimen and we have 12 more months of experience,” he said. “The pragmatic and liberal path is definitely in our interest. “

Despite the uncertainty, in Zermatt preparations are underway for the major holiday season. Christina Villano, manager of Elsie’s wine bar, recalled last New Years Eve when she had to throw in lobsters, caviar and oysters bought for a booked gala night that was canceled when the resort went was closed on December 28. They did not do it. return to work all winter.

“It was really bad. . . It was a lot of money to lose and we cried. We are a small place and we only buy fresh produce, ”she said.

Villano remained optimistic for the weeks to come. On a recent Friday night, Elsie’s was full of visitors, ordering Bordeaux and Burgundy and tasting platters of snails and melted Belper Knolle, a local cheese.

“We just don’t know what the next few weeks will look like. We have to wait every day and see what happens with this new variant, ”she said. “The government, of course, has to do the best. But it’s been going on for so long, and we’ve done everything they asked for, with the vaccine, with masks, with distancing. . . we also need to think about our livelihoods.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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