Covid-19 impact on Skiing and Snowboarding

Verbier has one run open.

Most Alpine resorts are holding fire on when, and whether, to begin the 2020/21 ski season. Currently the only ski resorts with unrestricted public access are in Switzerland, but most resorts still seem to be planning to open in December.

Ski instructor at Zermatt

There is no consensus on which measures ski resorts should take to avoid the outbreaks that occurred last season, but it is likely that it will be local Covid-19 regulations that dictate the viability of ski resort openings and operation and – critically – the ability of people from outside the area to be allowed to visit. Unfortunately the promising trials of vaccines to prevent Covid-19 look to arrive too late to impact on the 2020/21 season – indeed they might embolden some authorities to increase restrictions in the short-term. At this time it is not altogether certain that the authorities won’t order ski resorts to close if they are seen to be responsible again for spreading the virus.

So what is the situation in Switzerland? I have been in the country for some weeks now, and have visited Zermatt both before and after a local lockdown was introduced, and Verbier afterwards. This what I learned.

Covid-19 safeguards in Verbier

The rate of infection with Covid-19 in Switzerland is the highest of the Alpine nations, and higher than that of most countries where visitors to Switzerland come from. As a result Switzerland decided to dump their quarantine requirements for visitors from most countries, including the UK. Most cantons had not previously imposed stringent lockdowns, but that has since changed.

The canton of Valais in Switzerland is home to some of the world’s leading ski resorts, including Saas-Fee, Zermatt and Verbier. These resorts, alongside Engelberg and Glacier3000, have begun their winter season, albeit only for selected runs above the snowline.

The recent good weather means the snowline may recede in the next week or so, which could jeopardise Verbier’s limited opening – less so those resorts with runs on the glaciers. However the resorts suffered a bigger blow when the Valais cantonal authorities declared – in the face of accelerating Covid-19 infections – that all restaurants and bars, including those in the mountains, must shut from 10pm on 6th November. Hotels, however, may remain open for business.

Cable Car Station in Zermatt
Cable car to Furi from Zermatt

Before the lockdown Zermatt had already required customers to wear a mask on all lifts, including T-bars, and inside all facilities except when sitting down to eat or drink. It seemed to be working and was enforced, although some people seemed to think that as long as the mask covered their mouth, they were adhering to the requirements. Social distancing was not followed in settings where people were wearing a mask, and the lifts were all working with pre-Covid capacities in place. in the summer I had seen that some resorts, such as Champéry, restricted numbers on lifts – but this does not seem to be the case for the winter season.

Lift queue at Verbier
Lac des Vaux chairlift, Verbier

Verbier seemed to be operating along broadly similar lines. On the Lac des Vaux chairlift the staff were insisting suitable face coverings were used, handing out disposable masks to people who were deemed to be wearing unsuitable coverings, such as a scarf. There was no attempt to apply social distancing on the lifts, although the 1.5m rule seemed to apply in other indoor settings.

Eating at Trockener Steg under the Matterhorn

Mountain restaurants on the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise ( 3883m ) and at Trockener Steg ( 2939m ) were open until the lockdown and following reasonably effective-looking controls. The border with Italy was closed so it was not possible to visit the wonderful Chalet Etoile, and it will be a concern for many visitors to Zermatt if the world-famous mountain restaurants are not open in peak season.

Mountain restaurant at Attelas following contanonal covid restrictions

By the time I got to Verbier (where I stayed at the excellent Hotel Bristol), lockdown was in effect and the mountain restaurants only provided a fairly basic take-away menu. They had also removed all of the access to seating inside or outside. With the fine weather that wasn’t too much of a problem.

Lunch break at Attelas, Verbier

Being early season most bars and restaurants are not yet ordinarily open in either Zermatt or Verbier. Some hotels and restaurants that have opened early are providing take-away menus, and can still provide restaurant facilities to residents if they have a restaurant on site. There is a kebab takeaway in Zermatt, which when I visited had run out of kebab, and a good takeaway just off the roundabout in Verbier, which also serves beer.

One of the most popular bars in Zermatt is Papperla, and it was open for business when I was there, albeit with severe restrictions on numbers. At 10pm it was due to close for the duration of the lockdown. I turned up at 9pm but wasn’t allowed in because of restrictions on numbers. However Yves, a genial skier from Lausanne on an outing with his football team, invited me to join his party on the deck. As we all downed Jager bombs, I asked him what he would be doing for après ski now. “We have some beers from the Spar and will party in our hotel rooms”, he said, “Do you want to come?”. I declined.

Papperla bar, Zermatt

As Yves and his friends were shooed from the bar I asked Charlotte, who works as a barmaid at Papperla, what would happen to her now. She shrugged. “I guess I get to ski more”.

Less sanguine was Isabelle from the Hotel Adonis where I was staying in Zermatt. She glumly told me that 80% of the guests due to stay for the weekend had cancelled once the new Valais restrictions were announced. “Do you think everything will be back to normal by next summer?”, she asked, hopefully.

It strikes me that the Swiss resorts are gambling that the measures that the authorities have taken will allow them to exit lockdown before the ski season gets going in earnest, and that the measures they have taken within the resorts will avoid them from once again being centres of the spread of infection. Only time will tell.

La Tzoumaz
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The end of the Ski Season comes early

The ski and snowboard season has effectively ended early across the whole of the Alps in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Numerous clusters of infections arose in ski resorts so it has not been surprising. What is more surprising is how many people persisted with their ski holidays this last week knowing that there may be a risk they would have difficulty getting home afterwards – or of catching the virus whilst abroad. It is worth bearing in mind that one of the first outbreaks that impacted the UK arose in a French ski resort. The French have, ironically, also been the last of the Alpine nations to close their season. Apparently 30,000 British nationals are stuck in the French resorts alone.

In North America the vast majority of ski resorts have now closed. Industry leaders Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, Telluride Ski Resort and the Aspen Skiing Company have closed dozens of resorts as of this weekend. Many operators had hoped to remain open during the crisis whilst taking steps to prevent the virus’s spread, but have had to face up to the new reality. Some operators claim it is a temporary measure, but it won’t be. Effectively, this season has finished in the Northern Hemisphere, and it is unlikely lifts will open this year in the Southern Hemisphere.

It is too early to say what the impact of Covid-19 will be on next season. Possibly the level of community-wide immunity to the infection from people already infected stops the spread of the disease to a significant extent before next season starts. If a vaccine is developed, however, it is unlikely to be available before next season, and ramping up production to cater for demand would take months: it could be that both of the next two seasons are wiped out.

Clearly the significantly shortened season, just ahead of the Easter holidays, is going to have a huge impact on everyone associated with winter sports. The extensive industry base that supports skiing will suffer badly. Package tour operators, chalet owners, airlines, hoteliers, restaurants, hire shops, ski schools, ski guides and ski gear manufacturers will be impacted in addition to lift operators. Many resorts are going to see their summer tourist visits plummet too. And if it runs into next season or beyond, the impact will be immense. Demand may shrink as older skiers decide it is time to quit the sport, and many potential new skiers will have chosen some other activity instead of snow sports. Lift operators will feel a huge cashflow hit which may badly impact investment and, for some resorts, even their viability.

Many industries are going to suffer from the epidemic, most will probably bounce back even at the expense of businesses going bust, but some may be changed forever. Winter sports could be one, with its expense and climate footprint having a long term impact on demand. Lower resorts facing the impact of the trend of warmer winters may see this as the time to stop their lift operations permanently. Older skiers and snowboarders may decide it is time to quit the sport, and many potential new skiers and snowboarders will have chosen some other activity instead of snow sports.

I have been lucky to get a couple of ski trips in this season, but had also hoped to get away at Easter and possibly a last hurrah at Zermatt in May. I also expect the footfall on my websites like swisswintersports.co.uk and www.snowandrail.com to plummet, and can’t see my book “Ski and Snowboard Switzerland” shifting many copies.

Next year’s MagicPass is on sale now. This provides the freedom of over 30 Swiss resorts for the entire Summer-Winter season 2020-2021 for CHF 399.00 (Adult) or CHF 269.00 (Child) if you buy before 6th April. Is it worth risking it?

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World Ski Awards 2018

In 1993 World Media And Events Limited launched the World Travel Awards and, buoyed by the success of this, launched the World Ski Awards in 2013. It’s only a bit of fun, although I am sure it brings business not only to the organisers but also the award winners. The approach is straightforward: votes are cast online by professionals working within the ski industry, and by ski tourism consumers, at the World Ski Awards website.
World Ski Awards 2018
Every year the awards are associated with a three day networking event, culminating in the awards ceremony, this year held in Kitzbühel over 16th-18th November. World’s Best Winners for 2018 included:

    Ski Resort – Val Thorens (France)
    Freestyle Resort – LAAX (Switzerland)
    Ski Hotel – W Verbier (Switzerland)
    New Ski Hotel – Fahrenheit Seven Courchevel (France)
    Green Ski Hotel – rocksresort, Laax (Switzerland)
    Ski Boutique Hotel – Aurelio Lech (Austria)
    Ski Chalet – Chalet Les Anges, Zermatt (Switzerland)
    New Ski Chalet – Chalet des Cascades, Les Arcs (France)
    Ski Tour Operator – Sunweb

As well as awards for the best in the world, there are also country awards, with votes for the best ski resort in Switzerland going to Verbier.
Verbier from SwissWinterSports

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WTF is the WEF in Davos?

Are you in Davos this week for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF)? Chances are, if you are, you are one of the thousands of extra staff brought in to look after the rich and famous. Or perhaps you are one of the rich and famous?

In what is a relatively expensive country to visit, the WEF really is about the privileged few. They are in town to put the world to rights, and most have come in on private jets.

With basic membership at a cost of 68,000 Swiss francs (£55,400), you get access to general sessions of the WEF. For just under SFr 700,000 for five people you get full access – provided your number includes a token woman.

But of course most people are not in town to hear what they could read in the papers. They are here to mingle, network or to party. Or all three.

Apparently you know you are part of the in crowd if you get invited to the party thrown by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska at his palatial chalet up the mountain from Davos. Regulars include people like Tony Blair, and you can guarantee the opportunity to hear the great and the not so good bend your ear about how issues such as inequality and the environment can get fixed. I kid you not, these are the two hottest topics at Davos.

And all this before everyone gets to go home on their private jets at nearby Dübendorf military airfield, escaping the traffic jams of chauffeur driven cars or the inconvenience of mixing with the hoi polloi on Switzerland’s immaculate railway system, burning as much fuel in one hour as a typical car does in a year.

Amongst those jetting in will be London’s mayor, a champion of public transport, who may be interested to hear that he could have got from his home in London to Davos and back entirely by train.

So what else can you do in Davos apart from put the world to rights over a glass of Dom Perignon? Well, how about ski or snowboard!
Skiers on the Parsenn above Davos
Davos is one of the very best places in the world to hit the slopes. As the Swiss Winter Sports web site puts it “Really very extensive slopes and bags of off-piste options – probably stands alongside the Engadin and the 4 Vallées as somewhere you could easily spend a whole season. Davos Dorf has access to the fabulous snow-sure Parsenn it shares with Klosters, but there is also good on and off-piste on other mountains served by the lifts from the town, for example the Jakobshorn from Davos Platz and the Rinerhorn from Glaris. In addition you can access the small areas at Pischa and Schatzalp or, from Klosters, access the Madrisa.”

After a slow start to the winter sports season, Davos has had a lot of snow in recent days, with around a metre in the town, temperatures below freezing and perfect conditions on the slopes. Expect clear, sunny skies for the forseaable future.

If you choose to visit once the problems of the world have been debated, Davos is only an hour and a quarter by train from Zurich.

Davos Parsenn - Walter Peikert 1938

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