PANDEMIC FALL OUT FOR SKIING WINTER 2020/2021
The ski industry is holding its breath as another devastating wave of COVID-19 rolls in to affect skiing and ski resorts opening this winter...
Are the ski lifts going to open in Europe any time soon? It's a non from France for now, nein from Germany and non probabile from the Italians at least until 18th February. As infections across Europe are still way higher than hoped - with fears they may increase with the latest super-covid strain - governments are reluctantly not going to open the ski lifts any time soon, which is a big blow for ski resorts. Even Austria, who were most reluctant to extend ski lift lockdown, are saying 8th February is the earliest date for opening.
However, if the New Year holidays are anything to go by, resorts in France will be mobbed during the four weeks of February half term, lifts or no lifts, as families are still allowed to travel.
This is because ski resorts are still open for business, just not any business that involves ski lifts, bars or restaurants. Currently, though, they are deserted, leaving the locals to ski tour and enjoy the peace and pow.
NEWS AND QUEUES
Only Switzerland is determined to keep ski lifts rolling even though all but essential shops are closed. Health Minister, Alain Berset, justifies the decision to allow skiing to continue, declaring it is safe as 'you ski in nature.'
You can also die in nature as well as from covid. This week, there is the serious threat of avalanches in Switzerland with seven fatalities in four days due to recent heavy snow and unstable snowpack.
The initial queues of eager skiers and snowboarders at Swiss ski lifts were a serious concern for resorts - and a good reason for governments to keep the lifts closed elsewhere.
So how are the lift companies going to get over the queue situation now and in the future? Look at the US - and learn. Controlling 'the line' is like a military operation to avoid the pushing and shoving as in most European ski queues. Check out how they do it in Steamboat, number one reason to ski in Colorado instead of France.
DOOM AND LOOM
The UK ski travel industry has just been buried by another avalanche of doom as they have not only had the devastating loss of income from the lucrative Christmas and New Year holidays but, also, now the almost certain cancellation by Brits for February half term and beyond as the third wave hits the industry and travel from the UK is only for essential reasons.
They also have Brexit and the nightmare of work permits for UK staff or employing locally.
SBIT, Seasonal Businesses In Travel are currently lobbying governments in the UK and Europe to sort it all out otherwise everyone's a loser - the UK tour ops who need the staff, the 25,000 seasonaires working in EU travel, the ski resorts who rely on them and, ultimately, us the tourists who will face the inevitable hike in prices if there is no solution. Read here what they say about this crisis - and how to help by signing the petition to Save Our Travel Jobs.
END IN SIGHT?
So is there potential light at the end of the tunnel for skiing this winter or is it just another train coming the other way because getting out to Europe to ski has become a Covid-19 and Brexit train crash for the UK?
'We have now had another enormous hammer blow,' states Diane Palumbo, Sales & Marketing Director, Ski World and Spokesperson for SBIT, representing over 200 British travel and service industry companies. ' But the companies left, those who have made it this far, are more than 'viable' they are RESILIANT. There is end in sight for the travel industry with the roll out of a vaccine and people will want to travel and ski more than ever. Yes, it may be a slow start, but the demand is there and will not go away. Help keep our industry to keep going so that skiers and holidaymakers have choice and value in future.'
The news of a viable vaccine is, of course, daylight at the end of the tunnel, but obviously it now won't get rolled out fast enough to save the ski season, especially in France where immunisation has got off to one of the slowest starts in Europe. Also, reportedly, at least 40 percent of the population are anti-vaxxers, protesting about their 'liberte'. But how very French to protest about freedom' when it comes to catching covid-19.
So that's all folks for any thoughts of a ski trip to Europe before mid-February, leaving the Swiss to enjoy the mountains to themselves - and potential lawsuits if the open resorts start super-spreading the virus again.
Ironically the older generation, who have been most at risk and shielding, will be at the top of the tree for the vaccine and, hence, with proof of immunisation, could have the empty slopes to themselves, making fresh tracks along with the grand kids and locals.
Across the pond, USA and Canada are definitely off the ski radar for Europeans, even those who could travel, with entry limitations and, in the USA, quarantine in some states. And Japan might been on the travel 'corridor' as advised by the FCDO and a potential ski destination if you could get there, but they'll only let you in if you are on business or in exceptional circumstances.
The European ski resorts also received the major blow from the British Army's decision to cancel all winter sports in the Alps in 2021 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.
Instead, the British Army are now armed with syringes, immunising the UK population to win the fight against Covid.
HOW RESORTS ARE OPERATING
Behind the scenes the ski resorts worked out just how to keep calm and carry on with colossal losses from the lack of income especially over the Christmas and New Year holidays. Vail Resorts in the US already reported a $200m loss due to the early closures last season of its 34 North American ski areas and a pandemic-slowed summer., In brief operating plans in Vail Resorts and any that are open during the pandemic, now mean:
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 is reverting back to being the sport of kings and the wealthy heli-set. If there is no agreement for seasonaires from the UK to work in Europe, then prices will rocket if all tour operators and resorts have to find - and pay - local staff.
Resorts, lift and tour operators will also need to recover from last winter's early lockdown and the clamp down on lift openings, this season. We've already lost two UK top ski operators, VIP and Alpine Elements - and there will be more blood in the water. With the loss of competitors, the bigger, more resilient companies that are left will have a bigger, more lucrative slice of the ski holiday market, raising prices accordingly.
Meanwhile, the middle class ski tourist has been hammered by the lockdown, furloughed, fired or fallen off the financial bailout radar as self-employed, small businesses or freelancers. Even with a vaccine making travel possible again, the ski holiday especially with the family, will be one of the first middle class luxuries to go out the window until bank balances return to normal. That's if travel to the mountains were even possible.
THE HEIGHT OF LUXURY
But if you have deep pockets but no ski chalet to call your own, then chances are you booked a private chalet in Europe. This is because having your very own chalet is one of the most obviously safe ways of doing your ski trip. Cheerful cosy chalets shared with strangers and dinky Alpine hotels packed with multi-national tourists suddenly seem less appealing with the fear of future pandemics.
Now 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 (even though you shelled out for a negative COVID test) is not so bad when you have a gym, pool, hot tub and well-stocked wine cellar.
For the rest of us, flexible booking is a major lifeline. UK tour operators, Crystal owned by travel giants TUI, are keeping it fair and flexible with their Crystal Holiday Promise that, for winter 2021, offers 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. Any other questions? Check here.
But, as another crushing blow to the traditional ski holiday Crystal will only run self-catering and hotel accommodation, having axed their catered chalets in the Alps for the winter because of COVID-19 restrictions.
With Brexit and employment issues with UK staff, the writing is now on the pine chalet wall that this is the end for all those jolly UK catered chalet holidays complete with gap year chalet host who can just about boil an egg.
RISK VERSUS REWARD
But the true die-hard (OK maybe that's an insensitive adjective) skier or snowboarder is not easily put off. With last Easter ski holidays cancelled plus any March/April trips to the mountains, some took up the offers of ski operators to transfer bookings to this winter with fingers crossed there will be resorts open to welcome them eventually.
What's the risk then in booking when ski operators are offering money-back guarantees? Well, there is the very real risk that some companies - including airlines - may not weather this pandemic storm and, if forced to carry out their promise of refunds, could disappear into a whiteout, along with your ski holiday money (so always check your holiday is ABTA or ATOL protected).
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 this 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 fares 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 the reward of a winter's ski holiday.
'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, ''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.'
So will ski resorts run in the future - 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 has currently solved itself due to lift closures or reduction in visitors 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 DEFINITELY OVER
And what about après bars and new restrictions? Put your hands in the air like you just don't care, 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 après 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 après 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...
So by throwing Brexit into the mix, we have the 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 in line with European rules 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, Fountain Vest 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 with a vaccine, the ski industry is suffering, the manufacturers of ski and snowboard gear as well as tour operators and resorts. Money is going to be tight for most ski tourists who do manage to ski or snowboard in 2021.
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...