Stand-off in Europe over plan to ban ski season due to Covid-19

Austria rejects proposals by Germany, France and Italy to postpone ski season

Skiers, some wearing  face masks, take to the slopes in the ski resort of Verbier in the Swiss Alps on November 15th. Photograph:  Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty

Skiers, some wearing face masks, take to the slopes in the ski resort of Verbier in the Swiss Alps on November 15th. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty

 

Europe’s Alpine region is facing a high-altitude stand-off after Austria dismissed proposals by Germany, France and Italy to postpone – or even cancel entirely – the looming ski season.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined calls for a more modest season starting mid-January, with restrictions to avoid crowded ski lifts and apres-ski bars.

“The ski season is approaching. We will be trying to co-ordinate in Europe whether we could close all ski resorts,” said Dr Merkel on Thursday in the German parliament.

“Listening to signals emerging from Austria, sadly it doesn’t look at present as if we will find an easy solution, but we will try again.”

Earlier this week, Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, urged people to avoid the pistes during the Christmas holidays and called for a common ski rulebook. France has signalled its slopes will be off-limits until 2021 at least.

On Wednesday, Bavarian state premier Markus Söder said that a return to crowded ski lifts and packed apres-ski bars could lead to a repeat of the Covid-19 super-spreader event at the Austrian resort of Ischgl. Thousands of skiers, from Iceland to Israel, were infected after holidaying in the tiny village in February and March – and carrying the virus home with them.

As Germany tightened up its lockdown on Thursday, Mr Söder said that careless skiers could “thwart all the efforts made by the population at large”.

Austria’s resistance to talk of restrictions and a co-ordinated rulebook was swift and uncompromising, a reflection of the ski sector’s economic heft – and the influence of ski resort operators on Austria’s powerful regional leaders.

Roughly a quarter of all tourism bookings in Austria are linked to the ski season, and winter sports visitors contribute 4 per cent to the Alpine republic’s gross domestic product.

Earlier this week, Austrian finance minister Gernot Blümel said that a ski season shutdown imposed by the EU would lead to losses of €2 billion.

In Brussels the European Commission insisted it had no competence on ski resort health and safety measures and urged member states to find an inter-governmental solution.

Ski industry lobbyists have warned that closing slopes will have a catastrophic knock-on effect on restaurants, hotels and ski schools across Europe’s ski regions.

“We make a third of our turnover in the Christmas period and without this money, things will be precarious,” said Linda Stricker, president of the skier association in South Tyrol, northern Italy.