Clash of the European ski titans – which resorts will open first ?

Lucy Aspden
·9-min read
zermatt matterhorn - marco schnyder
zermatt matterhorn - marco schnyder

There have been calls for a blanket ban on ski holidays this Christmas across the Continent

The French prime minister has announced that ski lifts in France will remain closed for the Christmas period. 

"It will be possible to get to the resorts to enjoy the clean air, but all ski lifts and public reception areas will be closed," said Jean Castex.

In a live press conference Castex confirmed the news that was preempted by President Macron, when he suggested that skiing this Christmas and New Year would be “impossible.”

Protests have been taking place across French ski resorts as businesses and skiers revolt against the plans. Ski instructors, mountain guides, seasonal workers, hoteliers and restaurant staff are all concerned for the future of the resorts, which are dependent on the lucrative winter season. 

Protesters are not alone in their plight. Ski resorts across Europe are now clashing with governments about the future of winter sports. Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte sparked the outrage when he called for a ban on ski resorts reopening across Europe, in order to prevent a third spike in coronavirus cases, at the beginning of last week. News from France only fuels this argument. Germany is reportedly backing the common deal too. “The ski season is approaching. We will be trying to coordinate in Europe whether we could close all ski resorts,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament today.

Meanwhile Austria has indicated that it is against a Europe-wide ban and may open up its slopes in mid-December; while resorts in Switzerland have remained open and are sticking to plans to continue to do so.

Which resorts will open first?

It’s the question everybody is now asking, and as has been the case throughout the pandemic, a definite answer will not be known until the last minute. Here’s what we know so far and how resorts across Europe are reacting to the row.

Italy

Ski resorts in Italy are in lockdown until December 3, and only then will their fate and future opening dates be revealed. But it’s looking unlikely they’ll open for Christmas.

The Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, has called for a ban on ski holidays across Europe this festive period, in order to prevent a third spike in coronavirus cases. 

“We’re working with Merkel and Macron for a common European protocol,” Mr Conte said in an Italian television interview.

“If we close our mountain resorts and adjoining countries do not, Italian tourists will go to Austria and France and then bring the virus home.” Under proposed plans ski resorts across the Alps would remain closed until at least January 6.

The Italian resort of Courmayeur has already announced it won’t open until the New Year and other resorts in the Aosta Valley are unwilling to confirm anything beyond December 3. Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the Veneto region and part of the Dolomiti Superski area, is “on standby, as the planned date for opening at the beginning of December is under discussion.” 

cortina - diego gaspari bandion/cortina
cortina - diego gaspari bandion/cortina

Ski2 has been operating holidays in the Italian resort of Champoluc for over 20 years. Its founder, Roger Walker, has confirmed they have made the difficult decision to not offer ski holidays until at least March 1 2021, and possibly not for the whole winter.

“We understand from our suppliers in Italy that there is great concern from those living in the mountain areas that opening the ski resorts will bring a large influx of those from other parts of Italy and further afield potentially spreading the virus further around the country,” said Walker. 

“Whilst everyone is desperate for things to return to normal on the slopes there is hesitation that opening the ski areas too soon will cause more problems long-term. Locals are currently only allowed out to purchase food and supplies and no movement between even local regions is permitted. These rules are strictly enforced by the police,” he said.

Coronavirus Italy Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Italy Spotlight Chart - cases default

France

It’s official, ski resorts in France will be allowed to open at Christmas but all lifts and public areas, such as rental shops, restaurants and bars, will remain shut, as announced by prime minister Jean Castex. This means skiing will generally be off the cards, but ski touring and hiking will be permitted – however it’s unlikely while lifts are closed that there will be a ski patrol or rescue team in operation. The president has also announced there will be border controls in place to prevent French skiers from travelling abroad to ski.

It’s a devastating blow for resorts, which, since President Macron’s sweeping statement, have been airing their “incomprehension,” disappointment and the anger at the decision. 

“Mr Prime Minister, we are angry,” begins an open letter from Herve Gaymard, Mayor of Savoie, on Twitter.

“We are disappointed, because of the prevailing impression that all of the work we have done, including creating a reinforced sanitary protocol, organising and locally financing the testing of seasonal staff, and providing confined accommodation for those that test positive to self isolate, that none of this has been taken into account… I am asking you to tell me how this decision was made and why,” he wrote.

courchevel - david andre/courchevel tourisme
courchevel - david andre/courchevel tourisme

Individual resorts took to social media to vent their frustrations. A statement from La Clusaz said: “We are not an amusement park. La Clusaz is a mountain village that lives year round and not just a 'station de ski' that opens or closes on request like a shopping centre.”

But there’s no denying the pressure the coronavirus is having on the country. “The hospitals are too crowded currently with Covid victims, they can’t handle any broken legs or other skiing injuries. It’s therefore understandable if the decision is taken to postpone our opening,” said Stephie Dijkman, marketing director of Tignes.

“We will most likely be opening from mid-January onwards,” she confirmed.

Jean-Luc Boch, president of France Montagnes, the association of French ski resorts and mayor of La Plagne, said the announcement from Macron came as “a surprise”.

“Despite all the resorts wanting to open, we all have to stand together throughout the crisis, even if it means delaying the ski resort openings to January. The safety of both local inhabitants and visitors is our main priority, and we will do everything we can to safely welcome British skiers as soon as possible,” he said.

Coronavirus France Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus France Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Switzerland

There’s a breath of fresh air across in Switzerland however, where resorts have remained loyal to their opening dates and skiing will happen this Christmas.

“Approximately 10 ski resorts already opened their slopes; the rest of the ski resorts will be following in the next three weeks,” confirmed Alex Herrmann, director of Switzerland Tourism for the UK and Ireland.

Zermatt leads the pack – it opened for snow sports in the summer on its glacier and has not turned a single skier away since. “We are sticking to our plans and if nothing else comes up, we will open the ski resort completely on 5 December,” said Mathias Imoberdorf, from Zermatt Bergbahnen, which operates the resort’s lifts.

“While skiing you are in the fresh air, the distances can be kept well and the rides in the cable cars are very short. Thanks to the compulsory use of masks in the cable cars, waiting areas and stations, the safety of guests and employees is guaranteed and nothing stands in the way of skiing. Therefore we see no reason not to open the ski area,” he said.

zermatt - marco schnyder
zermatt - marco schnyder

Imoberdorf stresses how crucial it is to open in time for Christmas, with “many jobs” on the line. “Christmas has always been the most important week of the year for the ski resorts. Many guests stream into the destinations and large revenues are generated. Not only for the ski resorts, but also for hotels, holiday flats and all service partners of a tourist destination are to a certain extent dependent on sales in winter and also during Christmas,” he said.

Following a conference last week between Switzerland Tourism and the main Swiss tourism organisations, all have “emphasised that they were ready for the winter season and ready to welcome guests.” More than 3,100 businesses across Switzerland have adopted that nation-wide Clean & Safe label, which shows they are complying with new Covid safety measures. 

The country would not have to conform to any common plan for closures because it is not part of the EU.

“The ski resorts play an important part for the tourism industry in Switzerland for international guests but especially also for the domestic market. Spending time in the winter wonderland of the Swiss Alps – the largest and most beautiful outdoor fitness centre – not only during Christmas but during the whole winter season is very important for people in Switzerland, with skiing often being called the ‘national sport’ of Switzerland,” said Herrmann.

Coronavirus Switzerland Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Switzerland Spotlight Chart - cases default

Austria

Standing by Switzerland is Austria, where resorts are currently closed under the national lockdown. But they are hopeful restrictions will be lifted from December 7 and plans can go ahead for reopening.

“Providing the lockdown is lifted as scheduled many Austrian ski regions will be reopening in mid-December with safety regulations and protective procedures in place,” confirms a spokesperson of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

Major resorts, Ischgl, Lech and St Anton are all preparing to welcome skiers from December 17. 

“We are taking the time to ensure our mountain experience is safe for you, while also protecting what makes it special.... Winter is coming fast, and we're looking forward to welcoming you soon,” read the latest announcement from St Anton.

st anton
st anton

Obergurgl, Austria’s more snow-sure non-glacial resort, hopes to beat them to it and reopen on December 11 along with neighbouring Sölden.

The Alpine country’s ministers are defying appeals from their neighbours to keep the shutters down on resorts. “If the EU does in fact force skiing areas to stay closed, that will mean costs of up to €2 billion (£1.8bn). If that is what the EU really wants, it will also have to pay for it,” said Austria’s finance minister, Gernot Blumel. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is applying pressure on the Austrians to agree to a deal though, because Germany is Austria’s biggest source of foreign tourists. She admitted that there has been resistance, but would try again.