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Europe’s ski resorts and skiers brace for another COVID-19 winter wipeout

November 27, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC
Updated November 29, 2021, 1:48 PM UTC

Frédéric Porte veered from anxiety to excitement as the temperatures in northern Europe began dropping below freezing this week: Would this year’s ski season in the Alps be a repeat of 2020, when ski lifts were shuttered, Americans and Brits were barred from traveling to the Continent, and hotels and restaurants struggled to keep afloat? Or would a year of vaccine rollouts finally allow Europe’s €34-billion ski industry to return to normal?

It’s a question of vital importance to Porte, the director of the ski station at Tignes—a cluster of villages 6,000 feet up in the French Alps, whose economy is entirely dependent on mountain tourism. Winter is the high season in this part of the world, and hotels, restaurants and local businesses survive on the stream of tourists that usually starts arriving in early December. 

“We see quite a lot of bookings, but the new trend is to book quite last minute,” said Porte. “We have real concerns about the figures of the pandemic.”

Porte is not alone in his worries. Ski resorts in the Alps, one of Europe’s most profitable sectors, stretch across France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia—and by all accounts, last year’s ski season was a disaster down the line. Revenues were down an estimated 50% from pre-pandemic levels, according to Laurent Vanat, a consultant on the global ski industry. “Some resorts in Austria operated with 100 or 200 guests a day, where usually they would have 10,000 or 20,000 guests every day,” he told Fortune from Geneva, Switzerland.

Vanat says the problem was that governments in Europe—which accounts for about 53% of the world’s skiing activity—had “a panic reaction” last winter. Italy, Germany, Austria, and France all shuttered their resorts, making them the only four among the world’s 68 ski countries to do so. Hotels, restaurants, ski-rental stores, and lift operators around the resorts managed to avoid bankruptcy by claiming COVID-19 relief compensation from their governments, but that silver lining caused another problem—it cost billions more than governments had budgeted. “They were sitting in Paris, for example, and totally underestimated the cost,” Vanat said.

Now, desperate to avoid a repeat of that painful experience, governments across Europe are frantically trying to devise protocols that will protect their populace from COVID-19 without killing their ski resorts or emptying government coffers in the process. But as the season begins, it’s not clear that they’ve managed to do so.

At least there’s snow

Unlike some years, the problem today is not a lack of snow: The high Alps are already blanketed white, and a banner headline on Tignes’ website says, “the season has kicked off!”

Even before the Omicron variant appeared in South Africa and threw markets and the travel industry into panic, the problem was COVID-19. A fifth wave of the coronavirus is hitting Europe just as the snow is beginning to pile up on the mountains. Despite 11 months of immunization programs—in France, nearly 90% of people over 12 are fully vaccinated—infection rates have soared during the past few weeks in various European countries.

Italy’s Alto Adige region is one that has been hit by the newest wave. Home to some of the most famous mountains on the World Cup ski circuit, the alpine region, bordering Austria, is also home to one of Italy’s biggest COVID outbreaks and hospitals are filling up fast with sick patients. In these idyllic mountain villages, vaccination rates linger below 70% of eligible adults, well under the national average. 

It is because of examples like these that the World Health Organization now calls Europe the “epicenter” of the pandemic, and predicts hundreds of thousands more deaths this winter.

Val Gardena is a valley in Northern Italy, in the Dolomites of South Tyrol. For skiers, it’s famous for the Saslong downhill and Sella Ronda ski tour.
Paul Biris—Getty Images

To grapple with the newest wave, countries across the European Union have put in place a patchwork of COVID-19 rules, moves that have inadvertently increased competition between countries as ski buffs hop across borders in search of places with fewer restrictions. Last winter, for example, many skiers in France, where ski lifts were closed, drove a short distance to Switzerland, where the lifts ran normally.

This winter, Germany and Austria are engaging in a similar unplanned contest.

Starting this week, skiers in Germany’s richest state, Bavaria, need to prove they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 within the past six months—and in addition, have to take daily COVID-19 tests.

Amid the tighter restrictions in Bavaria, the ski season celebrated an inauspicious start last week on Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitze, which straddles the Austrian border. 

Long queues formed at all COVID test stations near the Zugspitze, with people often waiting up to an hour while others were simply turned away for lack of sufficient personnel.

“That was the punch to the gut,” said Matthias Stauch, president of the Association of German Cable Cars, said on Thursday. His organization represents 122 German ski-lift operators and estimates that their customers spend about €740 million a year, much of it on accommodation and restaurants.

“It’s a lockdown through the backdoor. It would have been more honest to simply say they don’t want people to go skiing, but not enough that they would compensate us [to close down]—it’s impossible.”

Making matters worse, a total lockdown and closure has been imposed on those Bavarian municipalities with an incidence rate surpassing 1,000, almost exclusively affecting areas on the Austrian border where the most skiing is done. 

In response, many skiers have crossed the border to Austria, where one-third of the skiers are now Germans. And unlike in Germany, COVID-19 tests are free in Austria—and they are not mandatory.

“It’s terrible. I just could not imagine this,” said Angela Inselkammer, head of Bavaria’s hotelier association in a Tuesday webcast statement to her fellow DEHOGA members. “We’re absolutely livid, helpless, bewildered and desperate.” 

The dreaded ‘Zona Rossa’

Coinciding with the start of ski season, Italian public health officials this week gave the dreaded “zona rossa” designation to 20 towns in the Alto Adige region, including the ski meccas of Ortisei and Santa Cristina in the region’s famed Val Gardena, at the foot of the Dolomites.

For the next two weeks, a strict 8 p.m. curfew will be enforced, all but dashing the après-ski scene. All gyms and indoor sporting venues will be closed, and people will be required to wear masks in indoor public places and outside on the streets and in piazza. The mountains will be open to skiers, though numbers will be limited, and only those with a valid Green Pass—indicating proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result—can get on the pistes.

Arno Kompatscher, the governor of the predominantly German-speaking region, is trying to put a brave face on a worsening situation. “We hope that the 14 days foreseen for the adoption of these more severe measures, in our 20 municipalities, will be sufficient to reduce the contagion curve, to avoid a generalized lockdown, protect health facilities from the fourth wave and guarantee the maintenance of economic activities, and social events during the coming winter months,” he told the media this week in introducing the “zona rossa” measures.

In France, officials have taken a different tack in their push to avoid losing another season. Determined to keep their 250 ski resorts fully open, they announced new COVID-19 rules two weeks ago, imposing social distancing rules on the slopes, mask mandates on ski lifts for everyone over 11, and mandatory government health passes for people over 12, showing they are fully vaccinated or have recently recovered from COVID-19.

For now, ski stations have reopened across Europe and skiers have begun whizzing down the slopes. But the memories of last year are still fresh, and Vanat, the industry consultant, says there is widespread nervousness that governments could again order them shut if infection rates continue rising. “The risk is they will panic completely and change the rules again,” he said.

For those who run Europe’s mountains, there is little to do but hope.

In the French Alps, Porte says France’s rules make him think that Tignes might return to something close to normal. He estimates—or at least hopes—that this winter’s tourists will be no more than 10% less than pre-pandemic levels.

“We will have skiing with health passes,” he says. “The big question will be, will it be possible for foreign clients to come?”

Europe's skiers braces for another uncertain covid season of slush, slide, or straight up

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