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.
I recently revisited my Swiss Winter Resorts web site to update it with what I have learned skiing and talking to people these last two months. I also revamped one of the landing pages, largely because I have come up with a few recommendations framed in terms of the ‘best five’ for various criteria. What do you think?
The Swiss federal authorities today imposed a new set of restrictions on the country, to run from Tuesday 22nd December for a month. The increasing pressure on hospitals and the unwillingness of some cantons to implement federal recommendations has resulted in the new lockdown, with restaurants and sport facilities due to close. However ski resorts will remain open, uniquely in Europe. The official wording from the federal communique today, 18th December, is as follows:
The cantons remain responsible for ski areas. Strict requirements must be met for ski areas to operate. Ski areas can only remain open if the epidemiological situation allows and there are sufficient capacities in hospitals and for contact tracing and testing. Strict precautionary measures must also be in place and their implementation must be guaranteed. If these requirements are not met, ski areas will not be granted an operating permit.
Zurich had argued for ski resorts to close down, on the basis that injured skiers returning to their home cantons could put an unacceptable pressure on hospitals. Although they didn’t get their way, the federal authorities are clearly signalling that cantons with ski resorts have to have the local capacity to manage ski casualties.
Valais and Vaud notably introduced a lockdown in November and, as a result, seem to have kept the R rate below 1 – unlike many cantons in Schweizerdeutsch-speaking Switzerland. Despite some teething problems, the controls introduced in ski resorts to restrict Covid seem to be working. However I have some reservations as to whether the capacity restrictions are sufficient. I guess it is a trade-off of having longer queues or increased lift capacity. I believe some resorts are planning to restrict the number of ski passes they issue to help control the situation.
The Swiss approach represents a risk especially with high rates of infection in the community. The other Alpine nations are keeping their resorts closed and their governments probably hope the Swiss experiment fails. There has been a lot of opposition to the closures in the annual 34 billion euro winter sports industry, and some businesses may never recover.
However we are still learning about this disease. That ski resorts were epicentres of disease last season is well known – and I have reported on this extensively – but the finger of blame largely pointed towards apres ski activities. It will take a little of the shine off ski and snowboard holidays if you can only eat in your hotel or takeaway and all the bars and clubs are shut, but at least you can still ski and snowboard. And I have had some excellent winter sports holidays where the apres activities were conducted in a family or social unit setting.
I know some people would say I am stretching it, but isn’t there a possibility that winter sports reduce the risk of Covid? I spend a lot more time in the sun when I am skiing, and one of the early indications is that Vitamin D, generated by being in sunlight, protects against the disease.
My only gripe about the new arrangements is that the closure of restaurants last month meant that all the outdoor searing was removed. I hope this will not be the case this time round. People who order take-out pose little risk of spreading the virus if they are allowed to sit down outside to eat. In practice people have found a convenient rock or step or sunny spot to eat their picnic or take-out, but these old bones really appreciate a seat!
Saas-Fee was the first ski resort I visited in Switzerland, way back in the early 1990s. Since then I have skied over 100 other ski resorts in Switzerland, some many times. I have also skied other resorts in the UK, mainland Europe and North America but Switzerland is my destination of choice for many reasons.
Not least amongst the reasons is that you can ski some decent slopes as early as November in Switzerland. I skied Zermatt last week, Verbier last weekend and Saas-Fee this week. I have written in previous blogs about my recent experiences in Zermatt and Verbier, but here I would like to concentrate on the relative merits of Zermatt and Saas-Fee for early season snow sports.
The routes to Zermatt and Saas-Fee diverge at the municipality of Stalden where the Matter Vispa and the Saaser Vispa rivers conjoin. Stalden is a dizzying community of homes on steep valley walls atop which are a number of small ski resorts such as Grächen, Törbel, Bürchen, Unterbäch and Visperterminen – of which Grächen is the largest and most charming. Stalden already has some spectacular bridges but a bypass planned to complete in 2023 will add to the spectacle with seven additional bridges, including the 270m long Chinegga Bridge.
Saas-Fee is the quicker to get to from anywhere you choose to come from, although the last leg from Visp is by bus rather than the train, as is the case for Zermatt. Neither resort allows cars, but the parking lot in Saas-Fee is actually in the village, unlike Zermatt where you have to take the train for the last leg from Täsch if you drive.
Saas-Fee is the highest and largest of four resorts in Saastal – the Saas valley – and the route to the resort passes through one of them, Saas-Grund. Saas-Grund has a creditable 35km of piste in the winter season up to a top station of 3200m. In terms of scale it is somewhat dwarfed by Saas-Fee with its 100km of piste up to 3600m, but it provides some variety if you come to Saastal for a week, often has untracked off-piste when Saas-Fee does not and is less crowded in peak season.
Saas-Fee is not as high or as extensive a resort as Zermatt which, fully open, has an incredible 360 km of piste between 1620 and 3899m. However in November, neither resort is fully open and – in the case of Zermatt – the runs over to Cervinia in Italy which would normally be open are closed because of Covid-19.
Saas-Fee and Zermatt have the highest ski runs in Europe and this is why anyone looking to ski outside the regular season should consider them. Zermatt is open all year round, but summer skiing there is very limited. By mid-November, Zermatt had open 26 km of piste and 10 lifts – limited by the lack of access to Cervinia – whereas Saas-Fee claims 43 km and 12 lifts. On the 28th November the lifts up to the Rothorn and Stockhorn are scheduled to begin operating in Zermatt, opening up at least 100 km of piste.
Both resorts have their upper runs on glaciers, which means off-piste is not an option in those areas, and – since glaciers move – the only lifts on the glaciers are surface lifts. However both resorts currently have chairlift-served runs lower down.
From earlier this month the Covid-19 precautions have resulted in all bars and restaurants being closed until at least the start of December in Valais, the canton where Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Verbier are located. This certainly puts a damper on the apres-ski and mountain restaurant scene, although even without Covid many restaurants and bars are not open in the resorts in November. But we’re here for the skiing and snowboarding, right? Right.
The limited skiing available in Zermatt is gentle reds and blues with a little off-piste whereas Saas-Fee has many more steeper sections. The open areas are reasonably well-connected. To get to the top at Saas-Fee you take two gondolas and an underground train, and the return journey is just the one train from Morenia. For Zermatt the trip up is three cable cars, but you have to take two back – from Trockener Steg and Furi. Since only the most southerly section of Zermatt is open it is also a longer transfer from the train station to the lifts than it is from the garages and bus station at Saas-Fee. In fact, at Zermatt, you might want to take the courtesy bus or a taxi to get to your hotel and to the slopes.
Switzerland has had clear unclouded skies since the start of November and this has worked worse for Saas-Fee than Zermatt. The snow is reasonably good at both, but fresh snow would be welcome and the pistes were icier in Saas-Fee. Both ski areas are north-facing, but Zermatt was bathed in sunshine nearly everywhere whilst the slopes were open, whereas many parts of Saas-Fee, with a low sun behind the Allalin, hardly moved out of shadow all day. I think Saas-Fee would have been a lot better with fresher snow, and I enjoyed my skiing more at Zermatt but I will look to visit again before the end of the month to see how the conditions are holding up.
I visited both on weekdays and would expect them to both be busier at the weekend. When I was at the resorts Saas-Fee had more ski racers in training, whereas Zermatt had more ski school instructors under instruction. The runs at Saas-Fee were generally much busier, but at both resorts it was possible to find runs where I was an almost solitary skier. Unfortunately the lifts up and down the mountain at both resorts were quite busy. Masks are compulsory on all lifts.
In broad terms what you are getting in November in these resorts is a similar snow sport experience as you would get mid-week, peak season in a resort like Braunwald or Pizol, albeit at a significantly higher price.
I like Saas-Fee. It is pleasant car-free village, reasonably compact with an excellent lift system and a good range of snow-sure slopes. Zermatt has its downsides but there is probably not a better ski resort on the planet, in my very humble opinion. Both resorts are expensive. Even without the bars and restaurants, ahead of the full season opening, I would on balance choose Zermatt still, but it is a far closer call, especially with Cervinia closed.