What travelers need to know about the ski season in Europe

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(CNN) – Skiers and snowboarders across Europe are experiencing the roller coaster ride as doubts emerge about when the mountains could open for sport this winter. Until this week, there had been some optimism among experts in the ski industry, in the hope that the ski season would begin before the end of the year, and perhaps the prospect of slopes. uncrowded could help allay any fear of catching Covid.

But recent steps taken by European politicians to delay or restrict the opening of winter sports destinations, mean new uncertainty both for the ski industry and for anyone hoping to make a reservation.

It is now increasingly unlikely that the European ski season will start fully before 2021, and even then it could be subject to last-minute cancellations and closures. One operator described it as a “season of hell”.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning a ski trip to one of the continent’s top snow sports destinations.

Which places are open?

And in a televised statement on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said it seemed “impossible” to consider opening ski lifts at French ski resorts for the holiday season, although a final decision remains to be made.

If imposed, these closures would affect many ski areas and alpine ski resorts in the north of the continent.

Austria’s huge Arlberg region – home to St. Anton, Lech and Zurs among others – and other nearby resorts such as Ischgl, a hotspot for the virus last winter, are set to open on December 17, three weeks later than usual.

Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, is also open and a number of stations, including Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Verbier, Engelberg and Andermatt, already offer a small number of limited-functioning lifts, with full openings expected sometime after December 5.

Swedish ski resorts, which have tightened restrictions in recent days but never imposed a national lockdown, are also open to skiing.

What impact will this have?

A number of resorts in Switzerland, including Verbier, are currently open and offer a limited number of ski lifts.

FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images

Any closure will be a blow to the ski industry, which had hoped for a relatively busy season after the introduction of the Covid measures.

“We are disappointed,” said Olivier Desaulty, director of the huge 3 Valleys region in France, which claims to be the largest ski area in the world with 600 kilometers of groomed slopes.

“We will respect the decision but it is difficult for us to understand because we have prepared everything.

“From December 15, the French will be able to tour France and if people come to our resorts, owners perhaps, and go for a walk in the mountains, or see the lakes, the shops will be open, it is strange to say that we can not open.

“It’s very hard economically. At Les 3 Vallées, our economy is 90% based on the winter season.

“Christmas is about 25% of that saving, so it’s really important for us to kick off the season. ”

The famous Val d’Isère 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 customers from November 28 and it will be ready again when the health situation and the government allow it,” says Ferrando.

“If the ski area remains closed, the village of Val d’Isère is open all year round and remains accessible for those who want to come and recharge their batteries in the mountain air (private rental companies, owners of second homes) and more. Shops are allowed. to reopen from this weekend.

New strict protocols

A staff member at the Sestriere Alpine Ski Resort in Piedmont, Italy, wears a face mask while checking the chair lifts.

MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP via Getty Images

Stations across Europe have implemented Covid Protocol measurement rafts to ensure a safe environment when they are allowed to open.

Face masks in elevators, regulated elevator queues, certain limits on tickets sold, social distancing, and mask wearing rules in stores and restaurants.

But aside from the standard Covid measures that have been put in place to protect skiers, what other changes can skiers expect once resorts reopen?

“I think the service will be lighter, in order to minimize contact with the staff, and of course some places will choose to do mothball for the winter and close, so maybe there will be a little less of restaurants available and your experience will be slightly different, ”says Oliver Corkhill, CEO of luxury ski operator Leo Trippi.

“But the most important will be après-ski. Clouds of people are unlikely to dance on a table like in St. Anton or Verbier this season. It will be table service drinks at smaller tables. ”

One argument put forward for the closure is that local hospitals already inundated with Covid patients will not be able to cope with the additional burden of ski-related injuries.

“We respect, of course, hospitals and what they say, but since there has been a huge drop in the number of people going to hospitals, we think it would have been more appropriate to decide in 10 or 15 days, ”added Desaulty.

“We are considering the decision too early and that’s what disappoints us,” adds Corkhill, who believes a European-wide protocol is likely to happen.

“If Germany and France exert pressure, it will be difficult for other countries not to align. Austria will falter and be forced into it, ”he said. “I think Switzerland will be open but it’s difficult to know how to react.

“People will have to be clearer because of the pressure on the resorts themselves, the number of hotels and so on. If an announcement came much later, that would be huge. ”

Patience game

A deserted chairlift is pictured at the Sestriere alpine ski resort in Val Susa, Piedmont, Italy, November 26, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte urged Italians not to take a ski vacation this winter.

MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP via Getty Images

The lack of Christmas and New Year’s guests is a “blow to an industry that has already been beaten,” according to Richard Lumb, co-founder and director of Kaluma Ski, a high-end tour operator with luxury properties in. Courchevel, in France, and St. Anton, Austria.

But Lumb thinks it could be a “binge eating” when people are allowed to ski and travel.

“The demand is there, it’s unequivocal,” he says. “People yearn to get away, but until we put in airport testing and reduce the quarantine, everyone is seated and waiting. It will be at the last minute.

Corkhill agrees: “If you’re a very wealthy person and can travel you will, but ordinary people will probably just say, ‘I can’t cope with the stress, I’m just going to spend Christmas at the house and we will be looking to ski in March and April. ”

Since the pandemic cut short the last winter season in the Alps, travel agencies have struggled to restructure their activities in the face of an ever-changing information cycle around Covid.

Renegotiating leases with cottage owners so they only pay for the weeks they use, along with more flexible cancellation policies are just a few of the tactics.

The previous reliance on relatively inexpensive young seasonal workers from the UK to work in ski chalets will end due to EU travel restrictions, possibly leading to higher prices as companies will need to bill according to local employment laws.

A number of leading UK tour operators have already taken drastic action.

Avalanche of changes

A skier stands next to the covid-19 safety instruction sign at Pitztal Glacier, Austria, October 29, 2020.

New Covid-19 safety instructions on display at the Pitztal Glacier ski resort in Austria.

JOE KLAMAR / AFP via Getty Images

Some companies, like VIP Ski, which operated more than 65 luxury chalets at 10 resorts across France and Austria, have been forced to close.

“We’re fighting the perfect storm, it’s hell season,” Lumb says. “It’s been a roller coaster ride and a total nightmare to expect, but you have to see things get better and that should be in the cycle this winter.

“I expect the occupancy rate to be half of last year, which is quite significant on its own but manageable given the restructuring. But it’s crystal ball time, ”Lumb added, ahead of widespread calls for a unified and delayed start to the season.

Corkhill agrees. “The volume is down about 50% in terms of the number of vacations booked, but it’s offset a bit by the super rich who book longer stays in the mountains to have a place to go, so they don’t have to. not to worry about quarantines. .

“People have rented accommodation for two or three months, but that’s obviously a very small proportion of the market.

But for anyone who does manage to ski when the resorts open, whether at their local resort or as an international visitor, they could be a treat, certainly at the start of the season.

“I think anyone who takes the bull by the horns and walks away will have a great time,” Lumb says.

“They’ll have quieter stations and enjoy the slopes for themselves, so experiencing that could be really cool.

“Standing on top of a mountain about to ski down will make you feel like you’re in a different galaxy than your normal world right now, in and out of lockdown. “

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