Alpine skiing industry faces uphill battle after reopening U-turn

Carving its own way: ski resorts in Switzerland have remained open this winter. Keystone / Marcel Bieri

As a fresh covering of snow brought ideal skiing conditions to the Alpine resort of Piani di Bobbio last weekend, facilities manager Massimo Fossati eagerly anticipated the arrival of the first visitors in nearly a year. 

This content was published on February 19, 2021 - 09:45
Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Piani di Bobbio, Sam Jones in Zurich and Victor Mallet in Paris

Italy’s government had given the go-ahead for the skiing industry to reopen on February 15, raising hopes of a return to normality after 11 months scarred by the coronavirus pandemic. Those hopes were dashed by a last-minute U-turn from Mario Draghi’s new administration, which postponed the reopening over fears of emerging virus variants and a spike in infections.

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“We’d bought a machine to sanitise the ski lifts after each ride, software to manage queues and tens of thousands of litres of diesel,” said Fossati. “We were devastated and angry when we were told on Sunday evening that we couldn’t reopen on Monday morning. We’d already sold 9,000 ski passes for the week and spent more than €100,000.”

Alpine ski resorts became a symbol of the virus’s arrival in Europe this time last year, as the pathogen was unknowingly passed from person to person in busy apres ski bars and restaurants by revellers who would later spread it across the continent.

Reopening resorts would have shown Europe was finally able to move on from the worst of the crisis. That most remain firmly closed is a stark illustration of the difficulties that lie ahead as countries seek to quash the virus and reopen their battered economies.

In Italy, the winter sports industry generates about €7bn annually and employs 120,000 seasonal workers, said Valeria Ghezzi, president of Anef, an association for ski facilities operators.

Yet Fossati said Piani di Bobbio’s lift operators, restaurateurs, bar owners and hoteliers — already mourning the loss of most of the €8m they make annually — would be reluctant to plan for a possible reopening next month. “I dare anyone to invest more money in this uncertainty,” he added.

French closures

Elsewhere in the Alps, the Swiss and Austrian governments have taken a different approach to safeguarding a vital economic sector, while France has adopted a stance more akin to Italy and extended closures until at least the end of the month.

The hopes of the French skiing industry have been repeatedly dashed since its resorts were closed midseason in March last year, and hopes of a restart before the end of the current season are ebbing fast.

The crisis is such that the National Association of Mayors of Mountain Resorts has warned of the “definitive and irreversible destruction” of the economic model that underpins 70 years of development in the mountains. 

The only consolation has been a resurgence of interest in activities that do not require ski lifts. At the resort of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, rental shops quickly ran out of Nordic skis and snowshoes while a 2km beginners’ slope has been opened at Courchevel that can be accessed by car. 

President Emmanuel Macron has offered little comfort and rejected pleas to lift restrictions. Ski resorts were virus cauldrons where “people find themselves in large groups in the places they’ve rented, and we know that’s how people get infected,” he said late last year.

Indeed, Macron was so frustrated by the Swiss decision to keep their resorts open that he threatened “restrictive and dissuasive” measures to prevent French people crossing the border to take advantage.

Swiss pistes clear

In contrast to France and Italy, most of Switzerland’s ski infrastructure is open as normal. Lifts and runs are operating with only minor restrictions and the Swiss government has insisted that skiing poses minimal risk of spreading the virus.

A study last month by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology concluded that transmission in enclosed cable cars was less likely than in other forms of public transport and far less likely than in office environments.

A countrywide lockdown on hospitality brought into force in January has, however, closed restaurants, bars and coffee shops, limiting the appeal of a day on the slopes to many, even if hotels remain open and the cableways are still running.

“Most people are not going to drive two or three hours to ski if you can’t get a cup of coffee or a decent meal,” said Laurent Vanat, a consultant specialising in the ski tourism economy.

Data from Swiss ski lift operators indicates that visitor numbers were down about a quarter month on month, Vanat said, though the economic impact on Alpine communities was likely to be proportionally far greater since much of the spending of winter tourists has been curbed. 

In Austria, where winter sports are estimated to support one in every 14 jobs, the political and economic pressures to keep resorts open have been huge. Yet, like others in the EU, its skiing industry has suffered significantly. Resorts used to accommodating as many as 1m guests in a season are currently reporting weekly hotel visitors in the low hundreds. 

The Ischgl resort in the Tyrol region became notorious as an epicentre for the virus when it arrived in Europe. A year on, fears that new variants were spreading in the region led Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to last week impose a travel ban that prohibits journeys out of the state without a negative Covid-19 test.

Walter Ricciardi, an adviser to Italy’s health ministry, has meanwhile blamed ski tourists travelling to Switzerland for spreading the new variants.

Such comments will do little to lift the gloom in Piani di Bobbio. Lodge owner Alessandro Mignone spent €30,000 preparing for last weekend’s reopening, hiring staff and buying gazebos and outdoor grills to feed his customers and avoid them gathering indoors.

“It feels like a prank. It snowed so much I can’t even return my orders,” he said.

Rome has pledged to support the winter sports industry, raising the prospect of government financial support. “I have filled my backpack with promises,” Fossati said. “I hope they won’t let us down again.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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