On March 9, the ski slopes beneath the Matterhorn fell silent. Lifts stopped whirring, the cable cars were packed away and the bars of Cervinia – typically a bustle of rustling ski gear, thumping Euro dance and sharp, lip-pursing shots of schnapps – were closed by order of the Italian government.
“Extraordinary,” the president of the Aosta Valley region described the measures at the time. But as COVID-19 numbers climbed with the severity of the Harakiri slope in Mayrhofen, Austria – Europe’s steepest ski run – it felt like only something extraordinary would halt the avalanche of new cases.
And then, on June 20, the slopes at Cervinia reopened with skiing on the Plateau Rosà glacier. National lockdown in the majority of European countries helped to quell the surge in transmissions and socially-distanced outdoor activities, such as tearing down a mountainside, were encouraged over indoor pursuits as there was less chance of the virus spreading outside.
So skiing returned, but with some changes – masks were mandatory on ski lifts, 1m social distancing was expected in lines, the cable cars could only accommodate two-thirds capacity, ski class sizes were reduced – but hotels, mountain huts and restaurants reopened as long as they could guarantee the necessary safety measures that were put in place.
The early indications are good. With restrictions in place, skiing is now seen as low-risk. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has cited several small-scale reports that show the majority of COVID-19 transmissions occur indoors, though it is known to spread at outdoor events with large crowds.
“[It was a] great summer season,” says a spokesperson from the Cervinia tourist office. “Customers have observed the measurements required without problem.” And the numbers seem to confirm that: the resort saw a 30% increase in visitors compared with last year. More importantly though, the resort recorded no cases of COVID-19.
Zermatt had similar success: hotel bookings may have been down 25% in July compared with 2019, but the ski area became the most popular domestic vacation destination for Swiss residents this summer.
Again, no coronavirus cases have been traced to the resort since it reopened on June 6.
“Skiers have adhered very well to the new measures,” says Simona Altwegg from Zermatt Tourism. “The main difference to the past was the compulsory wearing of masks on the cable cars.
There were no new regulations on the slopes – especially since the minimum distance of 1.5m is maintained when skiing anyway.”
Val-d’Isère in France also proved popular, selling more than 18,390 daily lift passes since June 6. This included a 14.5% increase in visitors across August compared with last year. “We had a really successful summer season,” says Chloé Harlé from Val d’Isère Tourism.
“We had a lot of customers who used to come in winter decide to discover Val d’Isère in summer.”
Glacier skiing was seen as a dry run ahead of the full ski season, a bandied-kneed stress test on the nursery slopes. In Val d’Isère, for example, the resort began by limiting the number of people allowed on the Pisaillas glacier.
“To ensure social distancing, numbers allowed on the glacier were strictly limited to 500 a day during the first week and then increased to 600. Online reservations were required, allowing for arrivals and departures to be staggered in order to avoid any overcrowding,” says Chloé Harlé.
Val d’Isère will now open all 300km of slopes this season – including those it shares with Tignes – and the story is much the same across Europe. Each resort we spoke to is set to open fully this winter, and in Switzerland and France all major ski areas expect to welcome back skiers.
“Right now, Switzerland Tourism assumes that all major ski resorts will open for the 2020/21 season, in compliance with any safety concepts,” says Alex Herrmann, Director of Switzerland Tourism for the UK and Ireland.
“All [French] ski resorts will be open this winter running at full capacity,” a spokesperson from the France Tourism Development Agency told us.
Austria is still preparing its guidelines for the season, but the majority – if not all – resorts will open, including St Anton, St Christoph, Stuben-Lech, Oberlech, Zürs-Warth and Mayrhofen.
Lonely Planet also contacted the Italian tourist board to confirm which ski resorts are due to open this winter but didn’t receive a reply. However, skiers are already able to book vacations to Cortina and Sauze d’Oulx. A number of smaller resorts will open as well, according to their websites.
Across Europe, vacationers should expect fewer après-ski events and fewer opportunities to gather indoors. “[This summer] we organized concerts twice a week on a floating barge on the lake to avoid big gatherings,” says Amandine Renevot from Tignes tourist office.
“For entertainment, the number of people had been strictly limited to respect social distances,” adds Chloé Harlé from Val d’Isère.
The message from most resorts is that travelers should book with confidence this winter. Safety guidelines at both national and regional levels are still being ironed out across the Alps, but we’re told that restrictions are unlikely to change significantly from those successfully implemented this summer.
Most resorts, though, are expecting people to book much closer to the ski season in case any coronavirus cases rise or restrictions change across Europe.
“We think that the reservations will be made at the last moment,” says a spokesperson from the Cervinia tourist office, “and they will depend on the measures taken by each country during the winter.”
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t book now. Some ski operators we have spoken with have seen an increase in enquiries, particularly for self-catered apartments, and Crystal Ski Holidays have said that it has had a 125% increase in bookings since restrictions on flights were lifted.
Other companies, such as Skiworld, will also reduce the number of chalets it will operate in 2020, limiting the number of options available to travelers.
Self-drive ski trips are likely to increase in popularity this winter with travelers already contacting ski operators expressing an interest to travel this way.
From the UK, the Eurotunnel is asking that passengers remain in their cars during the entire journey, which effectively gives those traveling in a car their own private bubble.
“We’re going snowboarding in December,” says Jamie Evans from Croydon who has booked a week in Tignes with two of his friends. “We looked at flying, but decided that we’ll pull an overnighter and drive down so we don’t come into contact with anyone else.”
Despite low infection rates on aeroplanes, confidence in flying remains low. “Fewer passengers are saying that they will travel again in the first months after the pandemic subsides,” says Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). “In early April, 61% said that they would. By early June that fell to 45%.”
However, there are still plenty of travelers willing to take to the skies. Over two million passengers took flights in July according to figures from the Civil Aviation Authority, down by 39.4% compared with 2019. Still, Easyjet and British Airways are both promoting ski trips this winter and will continue to fly to major ski airports such as Geneva, Innsbruck and Lyon.
According to Daniel Elkan from Snowcarbon, a website that offers ski trips from the UK by rail, the resurgence in traveling to ski resorts by train has been hit too. “Rail travel to resorts is a better experience than flying or driving, and the climate emergency is really spurring more skiers on to find out about sustainable travel to the Alps,” he said. “But generally, with COVID-19 uncertainty, enquiries are down, year on year at the moment.”
“COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the travel industry and on our business, and we continue to operate in very challenging conditions. As a result, we have made the decision to focus our timetable on our routes between capital cities, which have the highest demand from customers at the moment and shorter journey times,” said Rosie Jones from the company.
However, there are still ways to travel to the slopes by rail. “Those looking to take the train to ski resorts can travel to multiple train stations with easy access to the French Alps, including Lyon and Chambéry,” Rosie Jones added. “London to Lyon is possible in under five hours, connecting either through Paris or with a simple change at Lille Europe.”
Eurostar has also started to circulate fresh air in its carriages every 15 minutes to provide additional ventilation and set up an alternative seating plan to ensure travelers are seated at a safe distance apart from one another.
Scientists are predicting a climb in coronavirus cases this winter, which means that some governments are likely to implement travel restrictions.
However, those in the industry are quietly confident that slopes will stay open.
“Quarantine or other entry restrictions wouldn’t be a reason to delay the season because of the very important domestic market,” says Alex Herrmann from Switzerland Tourism. As a number of countries have already found this summer, a two-week self-isolation period on return to the UK isn’t putting off all travelers.
“I imagine that we will get a full ski season in, but this is very hard to predict,” says Daniel Elkan from Snowcarbon.
“What’s encouraging is to see that ski tour operators and accommodation providers are offering 100% refund guarantees in the event of cancellation due to COVID-19-related issues, which should help give people confidence.”
Most major ski holiday operators have put a degree of flexibility into their packages this winter. For example, Ski Solutions has removed its amendment fees, allowing travelers to change their dates or destination for free, up to 12 weeks before departure. If the FCO advises against all but essential travel due to the coronavirus, rebooking or refunding are both options too.
“Normal cancellation rules in hotels and apartments have been relaxed for the 2020–21 season,” says Chloé Harlé from Val d’Isère.
“We advise the customers to contact their hosts for more information. It’s also possible to reschedule a stay or to obtain a voucher for a future date.”
As with all travel at the moment, it’s essential to keep up-to-date with the latest restrictions. It’s also worth buying travel insurance with COVID-19 cover just in case your country introduces travel restrictions while you’re away.
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