ROME—Nothing says winter holidays for many Europeans like hitting the slopes, which just wouldn't be complete without the saunas, après-ski cocktails by the lodge fire and lavish dinners in cozy chalets. But this year, many European governments are calling for bans on ski tourism—especially in Italy, France and Austria—which were where the first superspreader events of the coronavirus pandemic kicked off last winter, long before anyone knew how bad this hellish pandemic would get.
Ski tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry for France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, employing tens of thousands of seasonal workers, and providing traditional winter fun for millions who travel to the Alpine regions and feed the local economies. These regions make more than 75 percent of their annual income between December and February most years, meaning even a few weeks less will spell financial trouble down the road.
The lifts that shuttle skiers to the top of the mountains are generally state-owned, meaning the governments can unilaterally decide when they will open based on a variety of factors, including snowfall, weather forecasts and COVID-19. The World Health Organization weighed in earlier this week, urging EU governments in countries with ski tourism to think “very, very carefully” whether the slopes should be open over Christmas. “We would ask that all countries look at the ski season and other reasons for mass gatherings and look very, very carefully at the associated risks,” WHO's top emergency expert Mike Ryan said at a news conference.
While the EU Alpine countries have been negotiating a way to ensure a one-for-all approach to the opening of the lifts, Switzerland—which is not part of the EU—is the only country so far said to be opening its ski lifts this month after governments in Italy, France, Germany, and Austria announced that theirs would not be opening in December as usual and may not open until mid-January to try to mitigate a third wave of COVID-19. (Theoretically people can still ski if they scale the mountain on foot and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are not, at the moment, prohibited.)
Resorts in some villages will open to accommodate holiday makers who want to escape from urban areas, but social distancing and restrictions will be put in place across the region and even those mid-mountain will not open the lifts.
Switzerland—which is also in a second wave of the pandemic—was hoping to cash in on the vacuum created by the closure of other slopes, but countries including France and Italy plan to conduct border checks to make sure no one is traveling with telltale signs of winter fun, like ski boots and jumpsuits. No one will be arrested for crossing the border or going skiing, they will be forced into immediate quarantine, meaning they may not be able to return to work or school after the holidays end.
“If there are countries, within or outside the EU, that keep their ski resorts open, we’ll put in place control measures to deter our citizens from going to areas where we think there is a risk of infection,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday. “We also want to avoid creating an unbalanced situation with resorts in France, Italy and Germany likely to close while others open.”
The move to check travelers has been met with harsh criticism across the alpine regions. In Italy and France, tens of thousands have signed petitions pleading that the slopes open in time for the holidays. Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally, tweeted that closing the border is a farce. “We can’t control our borders to prevent terrorists, illegal immigrants and drug traffickers getting through but as if by magic we can control our borders to prevent the French from going on ski holidays in Switzerland?!”
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said Wednesday that anyone found with ski paraphernalia would be forced to quarantine. “The conclusion you need to make is that ‘I’m not going to Switzerland’,” he told BFMTV.
Italy, which has successfully started to flatten its curve after lockdowns instate in November, has also ordered the closure of its ski lifts and vowed to make sure anyone who hits the slopes elsewhere not bring COVID home. The government will be issuing a new decree on Thursday that is predicted to take all the fun out of Christmas, including banning movement between regions, midnight Mass and large family gatherings. “It’s not possible to allow holidays on the snow,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said this week. “We can’t afford it.”