The Coronavirus Effect: The Future for Ski Resorts with Covid-19 Restrictions this winter 2020-2021

PANDEMIC PREDICTIONS FOR SKIING WINTER 2020/2021

The ski industry is holding its breath as the devastating wave of COVID-19 rolls on from last season to effect skiing and ski resorts this winter...

As European resorts with glaciers covered with recent snow open this week, the flag goes down for the start of the 2020/21 ski season. But  the pits are ominously quiet, the revving of engines dampened by a blanket of doubt over travel, quarantine and COVID-19 testing.

UK travellers to Switzerland made to quarantine for 10 days has curtailed plans of early skiing via Geneva. Now Italy is asking for coronavirus tests before entry, France for self-certification and every European country with ski resorts are off the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) list for exemption from ''all but essential travel' except for Norway and Sweden. But if you're from the UK, you'll have to go into quarantine for 10 days in Norway.

The USA is definitely off the ski radar for Europeans. Currently you can travel to Canada according to the FCDO but you'll need to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival. Ditto you can go to Japan as advised by the FCDO, but they'll only let you in if you are on business or in exceptional circumstances.

THE BAD - AND GOOD - NEWS

It's like an avalanche has hit the ski industry, with the debris from last season about to be covered by a second wave. The debris includes the news that the Austrian government is being sued over the Ischgl connection as in not closing the resort before the infection of holiday makers turned super-spreaders blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak across Europe in March. So, of course, all countries with ski resorts are going to be extra cautious. If the four individuals test cases are successful  (with 6000 more signed up for class action suits next year) expect swift lockdowns across European ski resorts facing both the health risks AND legal implications if there are more major outbreaks.

Just recently European ski resorts received the major blow from the British Army's decision to cancel all winter sports in the Alps this winter due to Covid-19. No more captains careening down the Cresta and rookies racing down slalom courses for resorts that have benefited for years from month-long training programmes involving hundreds of officers and soldiers held by the Army Winter Sports Association

So without the army and certainly without the usual school ski trips, European resorts are going to be pretty quiet this winter. Which is good news for locals and anyone else who can actually get there.

A COVID-free Christmas is on every ski resort's wish list but the chance of Santa coming down the chalet chimney is diminishing for most UK families. However, with Sweden currently exempt from FCO UK Government advice against all but essential travel and quarantine free, a new charter flight offered by Scandinavian Travel during the February half-term holiday may save  the UK family ski holiday. It'll fly travellers directly into Scandinavian Mountains Airport, offering short transfers to the Swedish resorts of Sälen and Kläppen in under 40 minutes.

HOW RESORTS WILL OPERATE

Behind the scenes the ski resorts have been working out just how to keep calm and carry on. Vail Resorts in the US have reported a $200m loss from this year already due to the early closures last season of its 34 North American ski areas and a pandemic-slowed summer, but they've figured out the way forward, assuming there are no more actual lockdowns. In brief their operating plan means:

  • Face covering required while using chairlifts/gondolas, when inside all buildings and during all ski and snowboard lessons.
  • Pass holders need to reserve before their visit, making as many reservations as their pass allows. The early season before 8th December is for pass holders only. This means no daily lift-tickets sold until that date. Pass holders will also be able to make seven priority reservation days during the season, defined by Val..
  • Physical distancing on chairlifts and gondolas will mean seating related parties (guests skiing or riding together) alternatively two singles on opposite sides of a four-person lift; two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift; or two singles on opposite sides of our larger gondola cabins.
  • Physical distancing measures in all public buildings including restaurants, bathrooms and other facilities.

Over in Jackson Hole, measures to keep visitors safe post-coronavirus include the reduction of crowding in the base area through queue management and maze configurations, along with increased lift speeds when possible to move guests more rapidly uphill.

For American skiers, as elsewhere if you want to avoid queues and lifts, the future is in uphill skiing as in ski touring.  While Aspen’s Buttermilk Mountain is positioning itself as a hub for uphill skiing, a new entirely people-powered backcountry resort has opened in Colorado, Bluebird Backcountry with perfect timing in these uncertain pandemic times. It has all the usual bells and whistles - ski patrollers, instructors, guides, base building, gear rentals, high altitude hut, trails and avalanche hazard reduction. The only thing missing is lifts. 

THE SPORT OF KINGS

There's the very real possibility that skiing this winter could revert back to being the sport of kings and the wealthy heli-set. At least until the industry recovers. This is because currently it's the middle class ski tourist who has been hammered by the lockdown, furloughed, fired or fallen off the financial bailout radar as self-employed, small businesses or freelancers. The ski holiday would, understandably, be one of the first middle class luxuries to go out the window until bank balances return to normal.

If you have deep pockets but no ski chalet to call your own, then chances are you've already booked your private chalet in Europe. This is because having your very own chalet is one of the most obviously safe ways of doing your next ski trip. Cheerful cosy chalets shared with strangers and dinky Alpine hotels packed with multi-national tourists suddenly seem less appealing now there's the fear of further infections. 

Post lockdown, it seems people want to get away from it all. Literally.

For a mere £750k you can book the whole winter in Chalet Montana, located in the private enclave of Les Carats in Val d’Isère, sleeping 10 adults and four children with ski-in/ski-out access and your own pool and spa area. Who would want to splash that much cash? Plenty according to Consensio chalets who have been snowed under with requests for their luxury chalets in Meribel, Val d'Isere and Courchevel for this winter. 

Of course, having the cash to splash on your own chalet and staff also means not having to travel with the hoi polloi breathing their potentially infected air in departure lounges and on germ-infested planes. Why would you if you have a heli or private jet to whisk you in supreme isolation except from friends and family to your ski resort? Even quarantining if you have to (despite your paid for negative COVID test) is not so bad when you have a gym, pool, hot tub and well-stocked wine cellar.

FLEXIBLE BOOKING

For the rest of us, flexible booking is a major lifeline. UK tour operators, Crystal owned by travel giants TUI, have announced that, for winter 2021, they are offering free amends, as in the ability to change your booking if diagnosed with coronavirus or have to self-isolate. Also you can change or obtain a refund if your ski resort destination has to close due to COVID-19 - and they won't take guests to any resort where you have to quarantine.

But, as a crushing blow to the traditional ski holiday Crystal are only running self-catering and hotel accommodation, have axed their catered chalets in the Alps for the winter because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Is it worth the risk, then, booking your ski holiday now? Well, yes, if you're a die-hard (OK maybe that's an insensitive adjective) skier or snowboarder who is not easily put off. With last Easter ski holidays cancelled plus any March/April trips to the mountains, some have already taken up the offers of ski operators to transfer bookings to this winter with fingers crossed there will be resorts open to welcome them.

Every ski operator is offering money-back guarantees if there is quarantine on arrival, isolation on return - or resorts are closed. There's the worry, though, that some companies may not weather this storm and, if forced to carry out their promise of refunds, might sink below the waves, along with your ski holiday money.

In the US, those who took advantage of early bird offers for the Ikon ski pass now have the benefit of Adventure Assurance, allowing next season's pass to roll over to winter 2021/22 with no fee if the COVID-19 outbreak is still raging. There's been no slowing of Epic pass sales, though, which are already up 18 percent on the 925,000 sold last year.

Easyjet, meanwhile, has snagged many an optimist by offering not only cheap flights for next winter, but also, for those who booked early, there was baggage transport for 99p per bag. With the sword of Damocies over the airline industry and the prospect of sky high flights as they take off, again, the cheaper flights offered now are understandably tempting even if paying out, currently, to Easyjet may be seem like throwing good money down a glacial crevasse.

But where there's financial hope, it has to be said, there's a skier/snowboarder looking forward to next winter's ski holiday.

CRISIS RESISTANT

"The ski industry may be slower to recover than other sectors (especially those resorts relying on the international market), and will have to work hard to regain consumer confidence," says Simon Hudson, Tourism Professor and author of the acclaimed new book COVID-19 & TRAVEL, published by Goodfellow in August, 'Remember like the cruise industry, ski resorts received lots of negative publicity during the outbreak of COVID-19. Resorts will have to make health a priority and convince skiers that they are safe to visit. The Governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, closed all the resorts there because of data showing coronavirus infection rates in Colorado's ski towns were 20 to 30 times higher than average. So until there is a vaccine, skiers will be wary. 

"On the other hand, certain target markets will recover quicker than others post COVID-19. Research related to crisis-resistant tourists has shown that a segment of tourists exists, which is inherently more resistant to crises than other tourists. This market is younger than average (millennials), more extrovert, willing to take high physical risks, motivated to travel by opportunities related to sports and health, and actively engaged in activities like skiing and snowboarding. They can also be influenced directly through social media, so resorts might recover quicker if they go after this market."

MASKED CRUSADERS

So how do ski resorts plan to run - and survive? For those resorts with lift systems aimed at carrying as many tourists up the hill as they can ram in - that can be up to 5000 an hour via high speed gondolas - this is a certainly a conundrum, which may solve itself if visitors from abroad can't actually make it to the ski resorts because of travel and quarantine restrictions so reducing the flow of skiers for the lifts to a trickle.

The Aiguille du Midi cable car, one of the first French lifts to reopen for business on 16th May had summer capacity reduced from 80 to 30 with  face masks compulsory and all passengers checked by thermal cameras before entering, a blueprint it seems for lift operations, this winter. 

Note, though, European lift operators have insisted on masks being warn. Proper masks, not Buffs pulled up over your nose and mouth. But canny resorts are already on the case. The tourist office in Chamonix, for instance, has ordered customised breathable neck scarves (like Buffs) but with integrated masks. At what cost, we wonder, for the punter? Twenty euros, at least, for the pleasure of a souvenir of Chamonix and Covid-19.

THE PARTY'S OVER

And what about apres bars and new restrictions? Hands up if you want to dance on the tables in ski boots, down shots and party with a bar full of strangers like it's 1999? Thought not.

Ischgl was fondly known as the Ibiza of the mountains before its less favourable title of 'ground zero' because of the spread of coronavirus owing to it's hedonistic festival-style apres atmosphere. But now the resort has vowed to change it's image. Eight hundred infections in Austria were traced to have come from this party town, with 1200 more taken back home by tourists from Germany, Norway and the UK, to name but three countries who blame Ischgl for some of the early super-spreaders - and are now looking to sue. But the resort, which closed on 13th March, is going into rehab to recreate its image so that, according to Mayor Werner Kurz, there will be, "More quality and less party tourism, prioritising skiers and fewer day-trippers on buses who only come to party,"

Will the same go for the other party resorts? Will they douse the Folie Douce atmosphere in Val d'Isere?, Curfew the stag-do bars in Sauze d'Oulx? Is this the turning point for those ski holidays where it's more about the apres than the sport? On the piss rather than on the piste. There's also talk of no restaurants opening up if there is still the fear of coronavirus hanging over resorts, which might put off the social cafe skiers who enjoy their elevenses and lunches up the mountain, although it would certainly save them money.

THEN THERE'S BREXIT...

Now let's throw Brexit into the mix for a recipe for big change in Europe for 2021. If the post grad and gap year young Brit brigade cannot be employed on a pittance for wages (but with 'free' bed, food and ski passes) because of European law, let alone shacked together in cupboards (that the tour ops call staff accommodation) thanks to COVID-19, then a major element of that carefree Work, Ski, Sleep, Drink, Repeat seasonaire lifestyle has already been lost.

The need to up minimum wages to employ staff is, undoubtedly, another reason for Crystal to drop their catered ski chalets. The costs passed onto their guests, let alone coronavirus fears, would surely put off the average Brit skier or snowboarder. 

A CHINESE TAKEAWAY

Meanwhile, over in China, there must be a huge sigh of relief that, phew, the Winter Olympics in Beijing are not until February, 2022, giving the country a chance to recover global goodwill let alone its economy.

"The country’s ski industry had hoped to use the years before the lighting of the torch to get new skiers on the country’s slopes and generate public interest in alpine and snowboarding thrills," according to Russell Flannery, Forbes magazine. "Travel, hotel, ski gear, ski apparel, real estate, and food and beverage businesses are among those looking to benefit.

"Those hopes have been largely wiped out for this year by the coronavirus outbreak. Short-term ski industry losses amid the coronavirus outbreak could exceed eight billion yuan, or $1.1 billion, government-published according to China Daily.

"The number of people who will go skiing in China this season is forecast to fall by 47 percent to around 11 million, according to an industry report, the newspaper said. The number of ski areas this year is now expected to drop to 720 from 770 last year.

"China’s earlier hopes for gains in the popularity of winter sports was part of a larger trend toward more spending on athletics as disposable income has increased over the years in the world’s No. 2 economy. Among US groups and businesses, China fans and consumers have been courted by the likes of the NBA , NFL and Nike. China sportswear supplier Anta, looking to expand its winter offerings, teamed up with Internet giant Tencent, FountainVest Partners and North American billionaire Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon sports apparel, to purchase European winter sports brand leader Amer at a valuation of $5.2 billion last year."

Yep, it's not just coronavirus we have to fear from the Chinese - prepare for the Chinese takeaway of ski brands.

SKI YOU SOON

Even if there is a cure for coronavirus anytime soon; even if we all become immune or even if there's a vaccine, money is going to be tight for most ski tourists and there will be a vulnerable ski industry.

It's your duty, then, to take up your skis or snowboard and return to the mountains as soon as travel restrictions are lifted and you are financially able. If the lifts are closed, there's always ski touring.