Phew! What a season it has been for skiing and snowboarding. I was fortunate to get some good skiing in before Christmas, but in general it has been a dismal season for everyone.
The Swiss lift operators association (Seilbahnen Schweiz/Remontées Mécaniques Suisses) has published its analysis of the season up until the end of March – which for all but a handful of resorts is end of season.
The lift operators report a grim picture. By the end of March, lift usage and turnover in Switzerland had fallen by 24% in total, compared to the 2018/19 winter season. Large resorts, dependent on international visitors, have suffered most, but the closure of bars and restaurants has also deterred local winter sports enthusiasts. Additionally, ski camps and club and business trips have not taken place. Ski lifts in the Prealps and in areas close to towns, which cater more for day tourists, have not done quite as badly. Ticino has actually done quite well compared to 2018/19, but that was a season where the canton suffered from a lack of adequate snow – something that cannot be said of this season, where the snow conditions remain very good in those resorts still open.
On the whole comparison with the 2018/19 season is more meaningful than for 2019/20, because Covid-19 had an impact on the latter part of the 2019/20 season. It was hard to forecast a year ago we would be where we are now, and it is only with some optimism that we can look forward to next year being without some restrictions. None the less, overseas visitors are booking in advance for next season like never before, with many winter tour operators reporting bumper bookings.
The long-term impact on the lift operators is hard to gauge. Despite running at a considerable loss this season, lift operators have seen themselves as providing a public service and largely remained open. If the ski lifts had closed, mountain regions would have faced a shutdown of even more tourist activities, resulting in greater economic damage than has anyway been inflicted. Government support, the lift operators association says, is needed to avoid systemic damage to tourism.
The impact on the whole winter sports infrastructure is devastating. Some businesses will not return, others will cancel plans for expansion or investment. Many resorts were already worried about the long-term impact of climate change, and Covid-19 is hardly likely to positively impact their thinking. Additionally, with ski resorts being amongst the Covid-19 hotspots at the start of the pandemic, the image of winter sports has suffered.
I think the ski industry will recover strongly, although the level of growth will likely be lower than in previous years. From a sustainability perspective and in light of the impact of climate change, that is probably not a bad thing.
Verbier, along with Ischgl, is widely cited as one of the super-spreader centres from the early stages of the Covid pandemic. And it is getting bad press again. Tages Anzeiger published this picture of a melee at the Le Châble valley station on Saturday.
Verbier has been open at the weekend for most of November but with very limited skiing. Half of the town was still closed when I visited a few weeks ago. Moving into December, a lot of terrain was opened up for the first weekend of the month, and the resort kept open 30km of piste on weekdays ahead of the full opening of the resort next weekend. I think the resort was simply unprepared for the demand, and I’m pleased to say that on my visit today, there was an orderly, fast-moving and relatively well social-distanced queue.
Normally I would expect mid-week skiing this time of the year to be relatively light, but I think two things are contributing to the high volumes, based on conversations I have had in the queues and on the lifts.
Firstly, French and Italian visitors are significantly up. There are a number of high altitude French and Italian resorts that would normally be open, so I guess that is part of why there is this increase. All trains between Italy and Switzerland are due to be cancelled indefinitely, but the people I spoke to had all driven.
The Tages Anzeiger article is in German and behind a paywall, but it says that there were over 20,000 tourists in town at the weekend with traffic jams normally only associated with high season. As many as half of the total of 50,000 guest beds in town are likely to have been occupied, an unheard of situation at this time of the year. The paper quotes Ami Oreiller from Hotel Les Chamois who says: “Last Thursday our hotel was still half empty, on Friday the phone rang non-stop , and on Saturday the house was full. It is mainly French who come.”
The second major reason for the uptick is that there is a fear that resorts will get closed down sooner or later, and some people are making the most of the opportunity to ski while they can. This is true of both locals from the Lake Geneva and Rhone valley regions, and foreigners, particularly those with chalets in Verbier.
The British make up a large proportion of the tourist trade in Verbier – at least one in five skiers is likely to be British in peak season. Tages Anzeiger estimates that the resident Brits have virtually doubled from the 8,000 who would normally be in Verbier at this time of year. Christmas and New Year bookings are as vibrant as ever. I spoke to some Brits over for a ski instructor training course and they were keen to get the training in while they could.
What hangs over everything is the uncertainty around how the season will develop. Germany, Italy and France had hoped Switzerland would fall in line with their approach and close their resorts until next year, but the Swiss resisted. In theory, the Swiss resorts are supposed to be open only to Swiss residents over the holiday season, but that is unlikely to be policed. Switzerland is also a federal republic and cantons are following different rules. Although Valais and Vaud have closed restaurants, the Bernese Oberland hasn’t. Graubünden is planning to perform mass testing of its residents to protect the ski industry in places like St Moritz and Davos, but to date other cantons only test people who show Covid symptoms.
As for the skiing at this time, it is pretty good. On the slopes there are no appreciable queues and the slopes are busy but not excessively so. Today is Immaculate Conception Day in Valais, a public holiday, so that certainly made it busier than it will be tomorrow. Runs were open below Chassure, Attelas and Fontalet down to Les Ruinettes, and although runs below Les Ruinettes to Verbier weren’t technically open, there was sufficient snow cover for people to ski back down to Verbier. The snow depth was good on piste and, following recent snowfall, off-piste wasn’t too tracked out. The Lac des Vaux runs are a lot nicer than they were when they were the only runs open a month ago. Being December, much of the skiing is in shadow. Some mountain restaurants and bars are open for take-away, including alcoholic beverages, but there is no seating. That is due to change next week when Valais relaxes its rules for bars and restaurants.
Switzerland has some of the best winter sports hotels in the world. With Covid, however, many cantons have closed restaurants and bars except those associated with hotels, and these are only open for residents. Now is perhaps a good time to figure out where are some of the best places to stay with full restaurant and bar service and things to do off the slopes, given that there could be various restrictions yet to come.
Much as I haven’t eaten in many of the restaurants listed in my previous post, I haven’t stayed in enough hotels in Switzerland to tell you which are the best for winter sports from first hand experience.
However, as is the case with Gault & Millau when it comes to the rating restaurants with the best food in Switzerland, the influential Zurich newspaper, Tages-Anzeiger, annually surveys which are the best 3, 4 and 5 star hotels in Switzerland for winter sports visitors.
The resulting lists are behind a paywall, but I shared the lists from 10 years ago on my “Where to Stay” page at the Swiss Winter Sports web site. Last week the newspaper published their latest annual survey (now up from the top 15 in each category to the top 25) and here are some of the best value choices, based on two people sharing:
The prices I quoted are taken from Tages-Anzeiger. I did a spot check and they seemed to be broadly correct, but do check at the hotel itself, the Swiss Tourist Board, Bookings.com, TripAdvisor or some other aggregator. Given the Covid situation, you might find some bargains are to be had – I certainly have so far this season.
You may well ask what the different star ratings represent and how durable the Tages-Anzeiger ranking system is by comparing the list of ten years ago with the latest.
Not surprisingly, it was Switzerland who first introduced an independent hotel classification in 1979. In 2010 this became the European Hotelstars .Union, and its classification has been adopted by most Alpine hotels (but not those in France). The full list of criteria is here. However you might want to know what the minimum criteria would be for a hotel selected by Tages-Anzeiger (i.e. three stars):
Reception opened 14 hours, accessible by phone 24 hours from inside and outside, bilingual staff
Lounge suite at the reception, luggage service on demand
Beverage offer in the room
Telephone in the room
hair-dryer, cleansing tissue
Dressing mirror, adequate place or rack to put the luggage/suitcase
Sewing kit, shoe polish utensils, laundry and ironing service
Additional pillow and additional blanket on demand
Systematic complaint management system
For many people a one star hotel will offer everything they want, such as half-board, TV, ensuite bathroom, daily room cleaning and towels. Indeed, I would happily recommend most hostels and many no star hotels in Switzerland to skiers and snowboarders based on my own experience. On the whole Switzerland is an orderly, clean and safe country and I have found even the most basic hostel in the country better than the best hostel I have stayed in elsewhere. Hostels usually offer full board, provide a bar service and have a range of accommodation, – from dormitories to en-suite. Indeed, normally you might prefer a ski-in, ski-out hostel to luxury accommodation where you would need a hotel transfer to get to the slopes. However many of the budget hotels do not offer a dinner or bar service at this time, and many hostels will not be offering shared accommodation any time soon.
It is difficult maintaining a web site dedicated to Swiss winter sports when it is impossible to visit every resort, hotel and restaurant every year and anecdotal information can be inconsistent, so it is useful to have independent input. One question, however, is whether the information is largely consistent from one year to the next and not faddish like many sources. I also wondered whether it is true that the most highly rated establishments tend to maintain more consistent standards over time. If I am right, the best Swiss winter sports hotels in Tages-Anzeiger will have changed less amongst 5 star than 4 and 3 star hotels, comparing 2010 to 2020 and 2020 to last year. Let’s see how it goes.
Well, all but two of the 15 top 5 star hotels in 2010 are in in the top 25 for 2020. The two that have dropped out have been rebranded and appear to be under new ownership, and the two that snuck in to replace them were ranked 23rd and 24th. The ones that dropped out still get good reviews online, but clearly are rebuilding their reputations. The top 10 are the same as last year, with some small differences in ranking. Interestingly, the W in Verbier, which the Telegraph rated 9/10, does not make the top 25 – which may be because the Tages-Anzeiger list addresses Swiss rather than UK tastes.
When it comes to 4 star hotels, only 7 that were in the top 15 are still in the top 15, 10 years later. All the others had dropped out of top 25 altogether. There have been some changes of ownership, but the list for 2020 has a different feel. However only 2 have dropped out from the top 10 of last year, to 14 and 15th places. There are 4 new entrants from last year, 2 of which made it straight into the top 15.
For the 3 star hotels, 6 have retained a place in the top 15, and 9 in the top 25. Only 1 has dropped out of the top 10, down to 16th. There were 5 new entrants, none higher than 17th place.
So it is not very scientific, but it does look like 5 star hotels have more durability than 4 or 3 star hotels but no real difference between 3 and 4 star hotels in terms of durability of reputation.
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?