The COVID-19 crisis shuttered Switzerland’s ski resorts in the spring, but they are banking on tighter precautions and the Swiss love of the mountains to save them as the winter season begins.
A cable car ride to the top of the slopes at Verbier, where staff wear plastic face shields, reveals the extent to which the pandemic has impacted even the furthest reaches of the pristine Alps.
“Wearing face masks is mandatory everywhere except on the slopes, in order to enjoy the great outdoors,” said Didier Defago, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion who is now president of the Wallis ski lift association.
With skiing already going downhill in recent years owing to less interest and less predictable snowfall, the closure of the slopes in March during the first wave of the pandemic left the resorts fearing the worst.
However, the industry has been able to adapt and has avoided another closure, even as Switzerland deals with one of the worst outbreaks in Europe.
The restaurants might be shut, but recreational skiers from the Wallis region are flocking to the slopes as the season gets underway.
“COVID is a drag,” said 40-year-old Ludovic Guigoz, wearing a tube scarf with an inbuilt virus filter.
“But coming to ski in the morning, it’s fine. I feel safe,” he said, before setting off down the piste with his family.
The resorts and ski lift operators insist everything is being done to ensure safety.
“The cable car windows are open all day long. Ventilation, masks, hand gel, distancing,” said Laurent Vaucher, the chief executive of Televerbier, the top ski lift firm in French-speaking parts of Switzerland.
At Verbier, like at other resorts, police patrol the lift departure area to make sure everyone is respecting the anti-pandemic measures.
At the end of last month, the Swiss Ski Lift Association tightened measures against the virus, making it mandatory to wear a mask not only in closed cable car cabins, but also on open-air chair lifts and in lines.
The resorts are also counting on the Helvetic love of the outdoors, with lift associations launching a campaign urging the Swiss to “hit the slopes.”
“This is where we have a trump card to play,” said Vaucher, who has given up on US and Asian visitors this year, but hopes his compatriots will head for the mountains in greater numbers.
Gregory Quin, a sports historian at the University of Lausanne, said the medium-altitude resorts could do especially well with the Swiss this year “because people rely on proximity.”
There is also a glimmer of hope that European tourists could still flock to Switzerland to ski over Christmas after Bern recently lifted quarantine requirements for people arriving from most of the continent.
However, it remains to be seen whether anything like the usual numbers will do so, considering the difficulties to travel from a range of countries currently under some form of lockdown.
Even if the number of skiers remains high, resorts will largely have to do without income from apres-ski activities and ski schools, which have been banned in several cantons.
That would be tough, given that ski schools and camps can account for up to one-third of a station’s revenues, Quin said.
For now, skiers appear to be heeding the call to support Swiss stations. By the end of last month, 110,000 people had already signed up for the 749 Swiss franc (US$821) Magic Pass, an annual unlimited ski lift access at 30 resorts.
The scheme was launched three years ago to try to combat the continuing decline in the number of skiers.
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