Alpine ski resorts dread holiday season without tourists
Germany, Italy and France are moving to close off the slopes over Christmas to avoid a coronavirus surge.
OBERSTDORF, Germany — On the surface, life in this small Bavarian town looks like it always does at the beginning of winter, when snow starts blanketing the Alpine slopes towering above its roofs.
The streets are quiet, the hotel beds are empty and Christmas decorations go up over deserted squares. A hushed stillness hangs over the entire town. But what’s usually the calm before the storm — with thousands of tourists and ski enthusiasts descending on Oberstdorf every December — looks likely to last throughout the holiday season this year.
The German government, with the backing of Bavarian premier Markus Söder, is pushing for a region-wide closure of ski resorts over the Christmas period to avoid a coronavirus surge in the new year. Italy has also called for an European agreement, and France has already announced measures to stop people from going on skiing trips.
The announcements, made last week, caught the industry by surprise and were met with opposition in the small towns whose economy depends on ski tourism.
Oberstdorf plans to put up a fight. The town’s mayor, Klaus King, is drafting a letter together with other regional mayors to explain to the Bavarian and federal governments just how dire cancelling the Christmas ski season would be for local businesses.
“We’re fighting on all fronts,” King said, speaking from behind a plastic shield in his office. “Oberstdorf, over one year, creates a turnover of around €360 million, €40 million of which are gone if we cannot open for the holidays,” describing the latter as “a conservative estimate.”
He’s already lost one battle. On Monday, the committee of the prestigious Four Hills Tournament, a German-Austrian ski jumping competition that kicks off in Oberstdorf between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and draws tens of thousands of spectators, decided the event will be held without an audience this year.
“Usually we have capacity for 27,000 spectators, this year we would have reduced that number significantly to allow for appropriate distances, but now we just decided to allow no guests,” King said with palpable disappointment.
On another side of the Alps, the mood is slightly different. Much like Oberstdorf, the ski resort of Avoriaz, in the commune of Morzine, resembles a ghost town outside the tourist season even without a nationwide lockdown.
With France deciding to shut down ski lifts over Christmas, it’s likely that the slopes of Avoriaz — along with its horse-drawn sleds and famed angular apartment buildings — will remain empty, too. But unlike in Oberstdorf, the local authorities won’t challenge the government.
“I’m not going to fight the government,” said Fabien Trombert, mayor of Morzine-Avoriaz. “We don’t want to open at all costs. We too want to see the end of this virus, too.”
Nevertheless, Avoriaz is getting ready to reopen — whenever that may be. The buzz of construction tools echoes around the village as businesses add the final touches to their storefronts and interiors.
“We are still working as if we would open,” said David Zitouni, who works on slope and outdoor facility maintenance.
Morzine, at least, had a summer season. For the town, long a hub for British tourists, the summer holidays were Brexit come early. Swaths of new French visitors compensated for the absence of the Brits. But many locals lament that the benefits of this record-breaking domestic tourism wave were unevenly distributed.
Pascal Anselmet owns the Dixie Bar, a meeting point for the many loyal British visitors of Morzine. Their absence this year has severely hurt his bottom line. Going into this season, he says, “the rope is around our neck.”
The uncertainty of when — or if — the tourists will arrive this winter brings additional headaches for local businesses.
“We have no visibility, no idea when to make our orders,” said Samy Damerdji, owner of local restaurant Au Festival. “It’s difficult also to hire seasonal workers because we have many responsibilities such as finding them a place to stay, but we don’t know when to make them come.”
In Oberstdorf, hotel owner Jörg King, the mayor’s brother, has similar concerns. While the summer season was good, he and his colleagues worry about empty rooms over Christmas.
Sitting in the breakfast room of his Sonnenheim Hotel, where chair pillows are piled high on top of otherwise empty tables, he said he didn’t really understand the government’s coronavirus policies.
Hotels and restaurants in Germany are currently closed, while shops remain open. These rules are meant to stay in place at least until the new year, although some federal states want to reopen hotels over Christmas.
While King was grateful for the state’s financial support — Germany covers up to 75 percent of lost revenues — he thinks that they are effectively the government’s “sacrificial lamb,” with the tourism industry paying for outbreaks they’re not responsible for.
“After all,” King said, “hotels and restaurants have not been notorious sources of outbreaks and owners bought ventilation systems to clear the air, etc.” Such investments were made in the spring and summer when businesses thought that doing so would allow them to remain open in the fall and winter seasons, he added.
Many decision-makers across the Alps will have the case of Ischgl looming large in their minds as they consider reopening slopes. In early 2020, the Austrian resort town known for its nightlife turned into a hotspot for the coronavirus, with thousands of tourists catching the virus while on holiday there — and spreading it across Europe as they returned home.
But Oberstdorf locals claim that can’t happen in their town.
“Whenever Mr. Söder and [Chancellor Angela] Merkel think about skiing, they think après-ski, they think Ischgl,” said Klaus King, the mayor. Oberstdorf and the surrounding region, by contrast, offer wholesome “family tourism,” he added.
Slopes open across the border
Austria, meanwhile, seems less concerned. The country has pushed back against calls for an EU-wide ski ban over the Christmas season and plans to open ski lifts from December 24.
The government has decided to keep hotels and restaurants closed, however, and a 10-day quarantine will apply to arrivals from high-risk areas over the holidays — making an Austrian skiing holiday less attractive to foreigners.
But then there’s Switzerland, where slopes are already open and most arrivals from the EU do not currently have to quarantine.
That’s a major concern for the French, Italian and German border towns, which face having to watch as skiers avoid their closed slopes to travel across the border.
“We’re 3 kilometers from Switzerland,” said Alexiane Lovisi, a ski instructor in Avoriaz. “All the people from the valley are just going to go ski there.”
France is trying to prevent that. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jean Castex said there would be random border checks to enforce a week-long quarantine, preventing French tourists to go on ski trips to Switzerland. Bavarian premier Söder last week also threatened to impose a 10-day quarantine on those who return after crossing the border to ski in Austria.
There’s also the question of safety. Locals in Morzine worry that determined slope-goers might set off into dangerous territory.
“We will still have visitors, they will still go out for cross-country skiing or on snowshoes,” said Trombert, the mayor. “They will be on the ski area, but it won’t be secure. Our whole rescue apparatus which we have developed over 40 years will be shut down … These are details for Paris, but essential questions here.”
But the current state of affairs also got the mayor thinking about his municipality’s future — and whether things even should ever return to how they were before.
“I think our current model deserves to be questioned,” he said, mentioning the environmental consequences of long-distance travel and mass tourism as an example. “People travel across the world to stay locked up in hotels. I’m convinced we can change things, that people from Thonon, Évian, or Lyon can realize there is a paradise less than two hours from their home.”
Laurenz Gehrke reported from Oberstdorf. Pierre-Paul Bermingham reported from Morzine-Avoriaz.