Munich, Vienna, Brussels Chancellor Angela Merkel is determined to prevent the corona pandemic from spreading through ski tourism. On Thursday, she called in the Bundestag to close all ski areas in Europe by January 10th. Merkel receives support from the Alpine countries France and Italy.
Austria and Switzerland, on the other hand, strictly reject the request. “That is always related to the number of infections, namely the number of infections here in Austria,” said Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Austria’s finance minister Gernot Blümel has already demanded billions in compensation from the EU if ski lifts are to be shut down over the Christmas holidays. The Alpine republic has invested seven billion euros in new lifts in the past few years.
Vacationing in Austria is already difficult. In Bavaria, winter sports enthusiasts and other day-trippers have to be quarantined even on short trips to the neighboring country classified as a risk area. An exception for stays of less than 24 hours should only apply if there are valid reasons. Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder has already spoken out strictly against ski tourism this winter. Queues at the lifts, gondolas and restaurants are considered potential sources of infection.
This is bad news for lift operators, hoteliers and restaurateurs, because the Christmas holidays are considered the most profitable time in the Alps. A ski ban could therefore drive a number of companies that have already been hit by the pandemic into bankruptcy. Austria in particular needs German tourists. In the 2018/19 winter season, more than half of the overnight guests came from Germany.
Mountain railway operators, innkeepers and ski schools in the Alps are looking into a highly uncertain future these days. “The worst thing is that we currently have no idea how things will go from here,” says hotelier Gerold Schneider, who owns a five-star hotel in the Austrian luxury ski resort Lech. “But we should tell our employees as soon as possible whether they have to show up for work.” A hotel generally needs two to three weeks to get up and running. On the Arlberg and elsewhere, the season opening has already been postponed by a few days in view of the great uncertainty.
A lot is at stake for Austria: the country has really upgraded its infrastructure in recent years. The country’s ski areas have invested seven billion euros since the beginning of the millennium. 550 systems were newly built or modernized. Sometimes the offer is downright luxurious, says ski resort expert Laurent Vanat. Heated chairlifts with hoods have been installed in many places, and underground garages have been built so that you can park comfortably in adverse weather.
However, it has not yet been proven whether this is all worthwhile. The Austrians have reinvested half of their income over the years. Almost two thirds of the slopes in the Alpine republic can now be artificially snowed, for which 130 million euros have been poured every year since 2008.
It is therefore no coincidence that Austria in particular is resisting the German advance. In no other EU member state depends so much on skiing as in the Alpine republic.
Austria needs the foreigners – and especially the Germans. Countless businesses, especially in the west of the country, live mainly from regular guests from the neighboring country. In Tyrol, for example, half of the winter tourists come from Germany. If you forego your winter vacation, a hotel in Tyrol or Vorarlberg can hardly be run profitably. Austrians will by no means fill the gap in the West. Local tourists only have a share of seven percent. A hotel, however, needs at least 40 to 50 percent occupancy in order to be profitable.
A million Dutch people go skiing in the Alps every year
Regional politicians and association representatives in particular therefore want to stick to the longest possible ski season even in the corona crisis. “Vorarlberg certainly won’t cancel winter,” said Christian Gantner, for example, in the middle of the week. “There will be a winter season, albeit a different one.” Walter Veit, Vice President of the Austrian Hotel Association, said that there was more space on the slopes than under the Christmas tree in the apartment. “Christmas in a hotel is safer than at home.”
Resistance to Merkel is not only rising in Austria. The German ski areas are also alarmed. A winter sports ban would be catastrophic and incomprehensible for the regions affected, said Matthias Stauch, board member of the German Cable Car Association. Exercise in the fresh air is healthy and the infection rate in Ischgl did not originate from skiing. “If we lose business between the Christmas holidays and January 10th, it will be disastrous.”
The Alpine countries like to present themselves as the home of skiing. There are around 2000 ski areas in 68 countries around the world. However, 80 percent of the leading resorts are located in the Alps. The most popular ski areas are the Arlberg in Austria and La Plagne in France. The expert Vanat estimates that around 135 million people around the world skis more or less regularly. This also includes athletes from countries like Holland that have no ski lifts at all. After all, a million Dutch people still go skiing in the mountains in normal years.
But what’s normal this year? In any case, in Austria, a winter sports country, public life is currently largely paralyzed, even schools are closed. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leaves open how things will continue. Only grocery stores, banks and post offices are open. Kurz has not yet decided in which order the shops, restaurants and cultural sites will be allowed to reopen, nor how things will go on with the ski areas. The primary goal of the government, however, is that the children and young people go to school again from December 7th. Otherwise Kurz did not want to commit himself. The intention is to reduce the number of infections as quickly as possible.
Chancellor Merkel herself is meanwhile skeptical that Europe-wide closings can be enforced. In view of Austria’s resistance, European coordination was difficult, she said in Berlin. With her move, however, Merkel implemented the agreement reached on Wednesday with the prime minister on further measures to contain the corona pandemic.
“The federal government is asked to come to agreed regulations at European level so as not to allow ski tourism until January 10,” says the paper approved by the federal states and the federal government. A similar proposal came from Italy on Wednesday. The Italian government proposed to close the ski slopes across Europe over Christmas and New Year.
This is to prevent millions of Europeans from traveling at the end of the year. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had already got the backing of Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron for his move. France has already closed its ski resorts in the Western and Southern Alps on its own by the end of January.
In autumn the glaciers were full of ski tourists
Switzerland, which, unlike all other Alpine countries, does not belong to the EU, is sticking to its skiing operations. The lifts are still running on the country’s glaciers these days. In the event of a ban on skiing holidays in the Alpine EU countries, the Swiss could become the big beneficiaries of the winter season.
Austria meanwhile not only has the largest ski areas in the Alps, Atomic, the world’s leading ski manufacturer, is also located in the middle of the mountains. The company from Altenmarkt in Salzburger Land produces a million pairs of skis every year, a quarter of the world market, and just as many pairs of ski boots. The start of the new season was promising, Atomic boss Michael Schineis recently told the Handelsblatt. “The glaciers were full, the consumers want out,” says the manager. In October, Atomic’s business was back at the previous year’s level.
Since the lifts in the glacier ski areas were closed, alpine skiers have become slow-moving. The seller of a large South German dealer who does not want to be named reports 90 percent less sales than last year. Practically nothing works at all with children’s equipment. Atomic recently invested 30 million euros in its parent plant in Altenmarkt, two thirds of it in logistics, the rest in robots and automation.
After all, if enough snow falls, Schineis should at least put down a lot of cross-country skis. “Cross-country skiing could experience a renaissance if the conditions are right.” And the manager should also earn more from ski mountaineers than usual. “We are expecting double-digit growth for touring skis.” They represent 15 percent of sales.
Corona is a disaster for the ski resorts, but it wasn’t easy before. “The industry has not yet found the golden way to teach beginners how to ski in such a way that they keep coming back,” criticizes ski resort expert Vanat. In Germany up to a quarter of a million children start skiing every year, estimates Peter Hennekes, managing director of the German Association of Ski Instructors. “That has remained very stable over the years.” If the ski season is canceled this year due to Corona, it is not just the ski instructors who would be unemployed. There would also be an entire year missing, which might be lost forever for skiing.
Quite a few hoteliers in Austria are likely to have tacitly made friends with the idea of stopping operations until mid-January, as Germany is proposing. This has to do with the generous sales compensation that the state currently grants hotels. Since November 3rd, the accommodation facilities have been closed in principle as part of the current lockdown.
However, the government pays the hotels a revenue replacement of 80 percent, using the revenue from November 2019 as the basis for comparison. This help is costly, but unlike other financial measures, it is quickly credited to companies.
More: A ski area owner worries about the winter season