Just as winter approaches, temperatures are rising in the Alps.
I’m not talking about the weather. It’s tempers that are flaring, as ski resorts rage at national governments, and governments argue amongst themselves about whether the threat of Covid-19 means the mountains should be off-limits over the Christmas and New Year Holidays.
The latest development comes from France, where resorts were already braced for bad tidings, following President Macron’s Tuesday-night address to the nation. This morning, Prime Minister Jean-Louis Castex put meat on the bones of Macron’s announcement: French resorts will be allowed to open, but not their lift systems.
This comes on top of the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti’s warning, earlier in the week, that ski holidays would not be possible this Christmas. There was news too that Germany will not allow its resorts to open.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel has joined calls from France and Italy for an EU-wide ban on skiing during the holiday period.
So is this the end of our Christmas-skiing hopes?
Only two days ago, keen British skiers were buzzing: buoyed by the news that 14-day quarantines for travellers returning from high-risk countries would be replaced by a five-day Test and Release system. There were still question marks hanging over holiday insurance: but there was no doubt that five days of quarantine (with a day on top awaiting test results) was seen by many as “doable” – especially those who work from home and don’t have kids at school. Some had started making plans.
Today, however, faced by this avalanche of closures, it’s not hard to conclude Christmas and New Year skiing is officially off.
But it isn’t quite: because there are still three mainstream European ski destinations that hope to be open over the festive period.
This autumn Switzerland decided to tread a different path from its neighbours. It didn’t lock down, and although Covid-19 infection levels are high, many influential voices are calling on the Swiss to hold their nerve. “Closing is simply not an option,” Christophe Darbellay of the Valais has said of the canton’s ski resorts.
In fact, some high-alitude resort are already open – notably Zermatt. There’s not much snow around yet: but at soon as that changes we should see a lot more lift systems spinning across the country.
Restrictions are in place – with some variations between cantons. In Zermatt for example, restaurants are only open for take-aways: which makes warming up on the mountain pretty difficult. But for those who really love their skiing, this is going to be a small impediment. After all, who needs a sit-down lunch if you’ve got sandwiches and a flask in your rucksack?
There is also a risk that Switzerland may change its mind about lockdown, even if the country’s federal structure makes a national shutdown difficult. Yesterday, for example, The Local in Switzerland reported that the government will re-examine the issue of skiing before Christmas. So it’s worth keeping an eye on developments over the next couple of weeks.
Right from the start, Sweden followed a different path from the rest of Europe. It has never locked down, and short of an explosion in the numbers of hospitalisations, is unlikely to change course: even though infection rates are currently similar to those in Switzerland and Italy. As result, resorts such as Åre and Sälen are preparing to open up as soon as conditions allow (Åre is hoping this will be by mid-December). There’s much less lift-assisted skiing in Sweden than in Switzerland or Austria but also many fewer skiers living nearby. If you’re looking for a less hectic environment for a Christmas break, this could be the place: even if the days will be short at such northerly latitudes.
Austria is in lockdown until December 7. Officially, the decision on whether to reopen ski resorts will be announced at that point. But it’s worth noting that the country is strongly opposed to the idea of an EU-wide lockdown. Austrian finance minister, Gernot Blümel has called for €2 billion of compensation if it goes ahead. Pressure from Germany may yet change the Austrian view: today, Bavaria introduced a quarantine on returning travellers from Austria. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the eastern Alps all the same. The ski industry is, after all, a vital part of the Austrian economy. There will be an almighty fuss if the slopes are closed for Christmas.
Holiday bookings and insurance
There’s an added complication when it comes to booking holidays. Many British travel companies have more or less written off the first month of the season, and aren’t taking bookings. But some will, and you should book with one – such as Momentum and Ski Solutions – that’s ATOL bonded. VIP Ski’s bankruptcy last week was a salutary reminder of how tough the last nine months have been for British companies. You need to make sure your money is protected by the CAA.
Pay close attention to your insurance too. It looks likely that when the UK’s Test and Release system is launched on December 15, the Foreign Office will still officially be advising against travel to high-risk Covid-19 countries. That means many travel insurance policies will be invalid.
As a result, you may well have to buy two policies to provide cover for medical emergencies: one, such as that offered by Battleface (for the under-60s), to cover for Covid-related treatment, and another, for example from MPI, for any possible ski injuries. However, you may have to accept that you won’t get insurance cover for Covid-related holiday cancellations. So check with your travel company about its cancellation policies.
In other words, booking a Christmas or New Year trip won’t be straightforward. And you will have to tread carefully when it comes to the virus. Every resort will have Covid-19 safety precautions in place, and facemasks will be routine. But you do need to be especially vigilant about congregating with others in unventilated rooms and lifts (El Pais has an excellent English-language guide to aerosol transmission of Covid-19 to give you an idea of how it spreads in these situations). I’d say stick to chairlifts and draglifts, avoid unventilated bars and restaurants, and spend every hour possible on the slopes. After all, that’s where your sacrifices will suddenly make sense.