Europe’s ski industry braces for another winter of pain as Omicron threatens the Alps

December 22, 2021, 12:46 PM UTC

For weeks, the villages around Tignes, 6,000 feet up in the French Alps, have been painstakingly preparing new COVID-19 test sites in readiness for the hordes of British skiers booked to spend their Christmas and New Year holidays on the slopes—a long tradition that was scuttled by pandemic lockdowns in 2020.

But the stampede of tourists never arrived. Instead, just days before the biggest vacation week of the ski season, the French government imposed a ban, last Thursday, on all nonessential travel from the United Kingdom, after that country experienced an explosion of cases of the Omicron variant that had been discovered in South Africa in late November.

For villages around Tignes, whose economic survival depends on mountain tourism, it was a devastating decision. “Some hotels are almost empty,” Frédéric Porte, director of the ski station in Tignes, tells Fortune, with a note of pain in his voice. “It is a big shock in the mountains.”

It could take months before the true financial hit from Omicron is fully understood within Europe’s €34 billion ski industry. It is just a few weeks into the three-month season, and each of the governments in the Alps—which stretch across France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia—has imposed a hodgepodge of measures meant to stop the ski stations from becoming pandemic superspreaders this winter.

Take France, for example: Last winter, when its COVID-19 vaccine program was barely launched, France shut all its 250 ski stations and ground the industry to a halt; the government paid compensation to hoteliers, ski operators, stores, and restaurants. Determined to reopen this year, the government in early November imposed social-distancing rules and announced that skiers would need to show COVID-19 vaccination proof or a fresh negative test to take the ski lifts.

‘A big mess’

Industry experts say there is a lack of coordination across the Alps on what rules to impose, and a growing sense that those rules could change at any moment as Omicron hits Europe with full force. Both factors make it difficult for tourists to plan an expensive ski vacation—something families tend to do long in advance.

“It is a big mess not knowing what will happen from week to week,” says Laurent Vanat, a ski business consultant in Geneva, who publishes an authoritative yearly global report on the industry. “Two weeks ago Switzerland closed its border to Brits, and now that has changed, and now it is France. Some countries are going into lockdown, and Austria is getting out of lockdown,” he says.

All that makes it exceedingly difficult for the industry to make business plans for the winter. Adding to the industry’s woes, Vanat tells Fortune, “it is difficult not knowing how long it is going to last.” His 2021 report calls this past year “the worst year of the current millennium” for the global ski industry.

Some cheers in the Italian Alps…for now

When Bryce Bennett zipped across the finish line of the Saslong race course last weekend in Val Gardena, Italy, something both unusual and wholly familiar pierced the air: a hearty cheer from fans. The 6-foot-7 American ski racer won the famed downhill competition, a mainstay of the World Cup downhill ski circuit. 

Over 2,000 downhill skiing supporters were on hand to witness the two-day competition last Friday and Saturday, according to Hannes Kröss, a spokesman for the FIS Val Gardena Ski World Cup organization. Last year, there were no spectators for the same event as COVID wiped out the 2020-21 ski season in the Italian Alps.

American downhiller Bryce Bennett celebrates a World Cup victory on Dec. 18, 2021, at the Saslong in Val Gardena, Italy. It was the first time in two years fans could watch in person.
Sergio Bisi—LiveMedia/NurPhoto/Getty Images

“For us, the organizers, it was of course good news,” Kröss says of the unmarred return to hosting a major downhill event with people in attendance, even if the spectator numbers were capped at 75% capacity. “But it was also a big challenge to coordinate the fans and to meet all the COVID protocols.”

That meant spectators had to present their “Super Green Pass,” proof they were fully vaccinated against COVID. The unvaccinated, even if they produced a negative test, could not get in to see the best in the sport take on the treacherous mountain run.

Even with last weekend’s successful staging of a World Cup event, nobody is taking a victory lap.

“All the pistes are open. The hotel reservations seem optimal. People are back in the town squares. Everything looks, at the moment, pretty good,” says Christina Demetz, marketing and communications manager for the Dolomites Val Gardena region. 

“There’s no Omicron,” she adds, “but we’re expecting it.”

At the moment, all of Italy’s ski resorts are in the most permissive of color-coded risk categories—white or yellow—which means tourists can ski as long as they present a valid Green Pass. If the local COVID case numbers were to tick up, however, and the region were to pass into the more dire “orange” level, then tougher measures would be introduced: reduced numbers on the ski lifts, for example, and the unvaccinated, regardless of their testing status, would be barred from the mountains. Pass into the dreaded “red” category, and the mountains would shut down to all, just like last year.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed things will continue with no interruptions,” Demetz says. The uncertainty is starting to weigh on business, however. In the past month, British tourists have begun to cancel hotel reservations, she notes.

For now, she adds, hotel operators can get by with Italian and German holidaymakers, the mainstays of the region’s tourism industry: “But all we can do is hope.”

The British aren’t coming

So far, the impact on the Alps from the U.K. travel ban is uneven. Some resorts in France and Switzerland are highly popular with British tourists, with special high-speed ski trains—now empty—going directly from London to areas in the French Alps, like Val d’Isère, a favorite of U.K. skiers. Overall, about 15% of skiers in France are British, according to tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, who appealed to the French to help fill the gap left by Brits. “You who are looking for a break in the coming weeks, think of choosing the mountain!” he tweeted.

But in some resorts—including Tignes—Brits represent about 40% of winter tourists, and their absence is almost impossible to replace, especially since the French blockade was imposed just a week before the Christmas break.

“We have some last-minute bookings from around Europe, but not that much,” Porte says. “It is not usual to take decisions like that at the very, very last minute.” In fact, the government’s determination to keep ski resorts open is a problem itself, since hotels, restaurants, and ski stations need to be fully staffed, despite the lack of tourists in some places.

“We need these people to work, almost all of them, but the level of activity is below expectations,” he says. “We need to offset our expenses, and we don’t have the income.”

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