Skiing in the Pandemic Alpine Rivalries Flare amid Resort Closures

While Austria and Switzerland want to keep their ski lifts in operation, Germany, France and Italy are worried about superspreader events in winter paradise. Billions of euros are at stake.
A skier in Switzerland with the Matterhorn in the background: Just across the border in Italy, lifts are closed.

A skier in Switzerland with the Matterhorn in the background: Just across the border in Italy, lifts are closed.


The snow cannons are firing away at full bore up on the slopes, while down below in the center of the Austrian Alpine village of Maria Alm, a few last-minute repairs are underway. But inside the four-star establishment Hotel Eder, Sepp Schwaiger is sitting dejectedly. "It's a tragedy," says Austria's 2019 hotelier of the year.

The 39-year-old operator of two luxury boarding houses in Maria Alm has just learned of the decision from Vienna that hotels and restaurants must remain closed over Christmas and New Year's. That means that Schwaiger, the scion of a well-established hotelier family, has little choice but to write off about a quarter of his winter revenues.

It means that Sepp's annual "Exsepptional" dinner will not be possible over the holidays -- nor will the sushi treats be rolled out, not to mention the absence of frolicking in the Thermal Infinity Pool. It is far from ideal, and particularly painful for Schwaiger: In addition to being a hotelier, he is also head of the local tourism association, a member of the board of the cable car association and a member of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), the party of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

In the battle for lucrative Christmas travel revenues, the fronts in Europe have hardened. The border between Germany and Austria has essentially been closed to vacationers due to COVID-19 and in Vienna, the Austrian government has finally caved to massive pressure from their European neighbors and backed away from its intention to open up the ski resorts, host foreign visitors and rake in hefty Christmas profits despite rampant coronavirus numbers. Switzerland, though, has so far refused to change plans.



The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2020 (December 5, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Hotels and guest houses in Austria will now have to remain closed until the beginning of January. And even if the ski lifts begin operations on Christmas Eve as currently planned, travelers returning from risk areas must quarantine for 10 days – a rule that applies to vacationers from Germany as well. Which means that lift operators are almost entirely dependent on domestic tourists. Nonetheless, in the region surrounding Maria Alm, a skiing mecca known as Hochkönig, some 285 hectares (700 acres) of ski runs are being prepared with artificial snow. At a cost of around 5 million euros.

A Repeat of Ischgl?

Starting at Christmas, the lifts will then be open for a skiing experience – at least for Austrians – reminiscent of several decades ago: A long day on the slopes without a trip to the après-ski bars. And with the restaurants closed, skiers will have to carry their tea and lunch along with them. Germans who might find it tempting to ignore the rules should beware: Florian Herrmann, chief of staff to Bavarian Governor Markus Söder, insists that it will be relatively simple to intercept skiers returning across the border from Austria.

The competing approaches to the winter sport season between Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the rest of the Alpine countries all boil down to essentially the same question: Are chairlifts, gondolas and ski runs compatible with the measures necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus? Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte believes they are not, a position shared by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They are all concerned about a repeat of the "Ischgl effect ," which saw après-ski bars in the Austrian ski resort town of Ischgl turn into superspreader events last spring that helped fling the virus across Europe.

Ischgl in September: Posters advertising a reopening of the Schatzi bar, an aprés-ski venue.

Ischgl in September: Posters advertising a reopening of the Schatzi bar, an aprés-ski venue.

Foto: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Austrians, meanwhile, have chosen a different approach. "We are half a year smarter than we were back then in Ischgl," is the position held by the Maria Alm cable car association. They argue that hoteliers and cable car operators have invested significant amounts of money in higher hygiene standards. And après-ski establishments have retooled to offer sit-down meals instead of stand-up drinks. Austria's government, demands Peter Schröcksnadel, the powerful lift operator and president of the Austrian Ski Federation, "must not bend to the international campaign against winter sports" that is being waged with "pressure from Rome, Paris and Berlin/Munich."

When money and jobs are at stake, the tone often becomes rather sharp, even at the highest of levels. Macron has threatened "restrictive and daunting measures" to those from France who insist on taking a ski trip across the border despite the risk of infection. Austrian Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger, meanwhile, replied that Austria will make its own decisions and doesn't need any advice from abroad. After all, she added, Austria isn't demanding "that Germany close its schools, for instance, or shut down its hair salons."

The idea of border-free travel throughout a united Europe seems a long way away at the moment. Reinhold Messner, the world-famous mountain climber from the Italian region of South Tyrol and former member of European Parliament, believes it is shameful that Bavaria has decided to force a 10-day period of quarantine on all those who cross the border into Austria for even a single hour of skiing. "Such ideas contain an element of envy for others. Such a mentality is harmful."

But not everybody in Italy shares that viewpoint. Giovanni Toti, president of the northwestern Italian region of Liguria, said last Monday that he had held talks with his counterparts from elsewhere in the country about the possibility of closing Italy's borders "to prevent our people from traveling to Switzerland, Slovenia or Austria to go skiing."

"It Would Be Disastrous"

Across northern Italy, those most at risk from such a closure are gearing up to torpedo the plan, which has the backing of Prime Minister Conte in coordination with Berlin, Paris and Brussels. Should lifts only go into operation in mid-January, says Valeria Ghezzi, president of the National Association of Cableways, it would translate into 70 percent less revenues. And Gianpietro Ghedina, mayor of the winter sports mecca Cortina d'Ampezzo, warns: "If we have to close over the Christmas holidays, it would be disastrous."

Nothing, though, illustrates the apparently absurd battle in the Alps better than the current situation on the two sides of the Matterhorn. In the Italian town of Cervinia, the lifts and most other tourism-related operations have stood still since Oct. 24. Skiers who accidentally take the run down to Cervinia from the Matterhorn ski resort won't be able to find their way back with a gondola.

On the Swiss side, though, it's business as usual. Skiing on the Klein Matterhorn, at an altitude of 3,883 meters (12,739 feet), is allowed. Swiss ski resorts and cable car operators are vowing a largely normal ski season and promise that safety precautions are in place. Skiers must wear masks in gondolas and on lifts, the gondolas are further equipped with anti-viral cool mist devices and reservations are required on the weekends – such are the provisions in place at the Andermatt-Gemsstock cable car.

Will Switzerland – located right in the middle of the quarrelling European Union countries without being bound by decisions made in Brussels – end up being the country to profit from the current situation? A country that is currently experiencing a new infection rate that is around twice as high as Germany's?

Skiers wearing facemasks on the Les Diablerets Glacier in Switzerland.

Skiers wearing facemasks on the Les Diablerets Glacier in Switzerland.

Foto: Francois Glories / abaca / ddp images

If nothing else, the European debate over the ski season has revealed competing understandings of what the state is good for. Germans and French expect measures and guidance from their governments. The Swiss, by contrast, prefer the state to remain in the background. High numbers of coronavirus deaths and full ICUs are the price that must be paid. Many Swiss, though, seemed only to grasp the gravity of the situation when it began to look as though the Davos World Economic Forum might be moved to Singapore this year for health reasons.

Ready for Whatever Might Be Coming

Hans-Jörg Walther has a pragmatic view of the situation in the Alps. He modestly refers to himself as an "innkeeper," though his "inn," called the Riffelalp, is located at an altitude of 2222 meters and offers double rooms over Christmas for 650 euros per night. Since the beginning of last week, Walther and his 125 employees have been ready for whatever might be coming.

"People are excited to go skiing, just like every year. Christmas and New Year's are responsible for a fifth of all of our winter revenues," he says. It is important to take precautions, such as social distancing, he says, but then adds: "For me, the policies pursued by Merkel and Macron are overly precautious." From an economic point of view, he believes there is a danger that "more damage will be done with the water than by the actual fire."

Swiss cantons debated a planned resolution from the country's central government, the Federal Council, which makes the cantons themselves more responsible for the safety of ski tourists and for their appropriate medical care should they fall ill. But it seems unlikely that the resolution will result in substantial limitations on the Christmas and New Year's skiing extravaganza.

The debate over whether the risk of infection in a 10-person gondola is greater than in a packed Viennese or Berlin subway car reveals a much deeper problem: The European consensus ends where national expectations of profit begin. Austria and Switzerland aren't alone in their lack of enthusiasm for the ski ban being promoted by Berlin, Rome and Paris. They are joined by the smaller ski nations of Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Slovakia.

In France, nerves in the government seem raw, especially after a number of violent protests recently. "The point is to keep the French from becoming infected in Swiss ski resorts," warned Prime Minister Jean Castex in unusually drastic terms. He said that tourists returning from Switzerland or Spain could expect stricter controls, tests at the border and seven-day quarantines. "The conclusion that people are supposed to reach," Castex told the radio broadcaster RMC, "is to avoid travel to Switzerland."

No Alternatives

One reason for the severity of his message can be seen at the cross-border ski area Portes du Soleil, where French skiers from Haute-Savoie could easily just switch sides and ski from the Swiss town of Wallis. The same is true in the Pyrenees, where the French could lose business across the border to Andorra and Spain. Spanish Tourism Minister María Reyes Maroto has assured that her country's ski lifts will definitely be in operation.

On top of that comes a growing mood of dissatisfaction among business leaders in France. "We are prepared to endure difficult and painful decisions, but we have to be able to understand them," says Patrick Ricou, president of the Hautes-Alpes Development Agency. Why, he wonders, were ski resort towns made to spend weeks developing safety protocols only to close everything anyway? "We don't feel as though we are being taken seriously," Ricou complains. "People here have no savings anymore and the Christmas season is responsible for 20 to 25 percent of our annual revenues."

Every year, France's 250 ski areas bring in around 9 billion euros, with about 120,000 people dependent on the winter season for their jobs. In many mountain valleys, there are hardly any alternatives to the ski industry. All of which helps explain why tourism associations, mayors and local politicians are protesting the decision to keep the lifts closed until well into January.

The ski area Passo Tonale in the Dolomites

The ski area Passo Tonale in the Dolomites

Foto: Guglielmo Mangiapane / REUTERS

In the high-mountain village of Tignes, not far from the border to Italy, the season began already in October. Even in mid-autumn, there is already plenty of snow at an altitude of 3,000 meters – and this year there was even more than normal, says tourism director Frédéric Porte. "We haven't seen so much for years." But the lifts had to shut down again at the end of October due to the second lockdown. Porte sought to console himself with the thought of the revenues the Christmas season would bring and instructed his employees to ensure that the ski area would be corona-safe, at least for domestic skiers.

But that work now seems to have been in vain. Porte says he would even accept a closure over Christmas if things could really get underway in January. "But it all only makes sense if there is a common approach at the European level. The way things look now, skiers from France will travel to places where the lifts are open. That will result in more movement than we want."

Is such an approach still a possibility? It seems as though borders are currently being closed one after the other inside Europe. For Austria, where winter tourism generates some 15 billion euros per season, that's not good news. If the neighboring German state of Bavaria continues to "Söder," scoffs Franz Schenner of Netzwerk Winter, an alliance of tourism-reliant businesses in the Salzburg region, "then we'll be able to personally disinfect each individual skier."

Funereal Mood

Schenner's use of "Söder" as a verb is a reference to the governor of Bavaria, Markus Söder, who has recently made a habit out of being a thorn in the side of Austria's oft-cocksure Chancellor Kurz. Söder has threatened Germans who travel to Austria with quarantine while promoting Bavaria as a holiday destination. Even if Söder and Kurz are both from the center right, it doesn't look as though their relationship is set to improve any time soon.

What, though, will happen with Austria's 1,600 chairlifts and 1,120 gondolas without German tourists? According to one study, skiers in Austria are responsible for 225 euros of spending per capita per day – money that will be missing until at least the middle of January.

Although the mood is rather funereal in Maria Alm, it is significantly better just 20 kilometers to the north, in the Bavarian hiking village of Ramsau. Hannes Lichtmannegger, who runs the Rehlegg Hotel out of a 15th century farmhouse, says that he, too, will suffer from a lack of business over Christmas and New Year's. But, he adds, "I am quite relaxed, because we are focused on sustainable tourism."

Just before the lockdown, he bought nine slaughtered, organic pigs and a 1,000-kilogram ox, filling up his freezers. Hotels, he says, are unfortunately not like a garage that you can open and close at will. But relative to some of his hotelier counterparts on the Austrian side of the border, whose survival is primarily dependent on the ski lifts, he believes he holds the better cards on the mid-term. "It could ultimately turn out that the coronavirus is something of a beneficial plague for all of us."

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