Covid has shuttered the ski season within the Alps — with one exception

(CNN) – France’s recent decision to shut down ski lifts due to Covid fears will have been a disappointment for many winter sports enthusiasts. It was devastating enough for Catherine Jullien-Breches to make her cry.

“I had tears in my eyes, I felt so powerless,” Jullien-Breches, the mayor of the upscale alpine resort of Megeve, told CNN.

The closings announced by President Emmanuel Macron last month have dashed all hopes of opening French ski resorts for the normally busy Christmas season – a move that will cost the tourism industry billions in revenue.

Megeve’s mayor says restrictions on skiing are destroying the city.

Jarry Tripelon / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

With other Alpine countries – Italy, Germany and Austria – Europe’s top mountain destinations will remain silent. Your snow-covered slopes are largely undisturbed by the usual rustling of skis and snowboards.

And yet, just 60 miles from Megeve, in the same mountains, the slopes remain open to business. In the Swiss mountain town of Verbier, the chairlifts will continue to transport people to the huge 4-Vallees ski area.

In the bars and restaurants, customers can still drink their mulled wine and eat their fondue.

Few in the European ski industry will forget the experiences of last winter, when the Austrian ski resort Ischgl was considered the continent’s Covid Ground Zero for a while.

Desperate for help

In Verbier, skiers must wear face masks on lifts.

In Verbier, skiers must wear face masks on lifts.

FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images

However, the question posed by those affected is: if it is safe for Switzerland to open its slopes, why is it not safe for other countries?

In Megeve, the closings of the ski lifts mean a loss of eight million euros (almost 10 million US dollars). And, says Jullien-Breches, for every euro lost on the slopes, another seven are lost in the village’s hotels, restaurants and bars.

She fears that many local businesses simply will not survive.

“I wish I could do something, but we won’t be able to support the companies that really need our help.”

A rare protest took place in the normally well-heeled center of Megeve on November 30th. But like their mayor, the locals know there is little they can do.

Michel Cugier, who runs the ski lifts in Megeve, had prepared to open with social distancing measures to ensure a safe season. Instead, he is preparing to take most of his 250-strong seasonal staff on leave.

“It’s really unfair,” said Cugier. “I had been working on Covid protocol measures and really hoped we would open.”

According to the industry association Domaines Skiables, ten million visitors flock to France every year to ski, generate 10 billion euros and employ 120,000 people.

Lessons learned

In Bourg-Saint-Maurice, protesters wore broken-hearted symbols when calling on the government to protect their jobs.

In Bourg-Saint-Maurice, protesters wore broken-hearted symbols when calling on the government to protect their jobs.

OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP via Getty Images

Other French resorts have also seen protests against the decision. In nearby Bourg-Saint-Maurice, protesters wore broken-hearted symbols to express their frustration with the general ban and called on the government to save their jobs.

Their anger increased with the opening of resorts across the border in Switzerland.

The decision to close slopes in Germany, France, Italy and Austria was not an easy one. Austria originally announced its intention to continue the season, but eventually bowed to pressure from its EU partners – with the exception of the opening of the ski lifts to residents on Christmas Eve.

The goal of the decision, while Europe continues to fight its second Covid-19 wave, is to avoid the type of cluster that Ischgl in Austria became synonymous with during the first.

However, the costs threaten to be substantial. According to Laurent Vanat, a consultant to the ski industry, skiing in Europe generates EUR 34 billion in sales every year – half of the total worldwide.

In Switzerland – which is not an EU member – Laurent Vaucher, the director of the Verbier ski lifts, said that a lot had been learned since Ischgl was identified by health authorities as a key element of the first European Covid wave.

“We didn’t have any new measures,” he told CNN.

“We didn’t have masks, we didn’t have social distancing, so the game is different now and we’re pretty sure we can do the work to keep the ski resorts safe.”

“Save the winter”

A protester in ski clothing in Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

A protester in ski clothing in Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP via Getty Images

In Verbier, skiers now have to wear masks on lifts. There are regulated queues with social distancing and fewer people are allowed to ride on gondola lifts.

Measures here are taken not only on the slopes, but also in the village, where masks are mandatory during the holiday season. Local executives say they work hard to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

“For us it’s not just about saving the Christmas holidays, but also saving the winter,” said Simon Wiget, Director of Verbier Tourism.

“And it’s important to save our reputation because we know that everyone is watching us. If we make a mistake and there is a cluster because of that mistake, we are seen as a bad organization.”

Coronavirus infections in Switzerland are increasing, and from Saturday the country plans to ban almost all public events and further restrict private gatherings.

“The corona situation is worsening noticeably,” the Swiss government spokesman tweeted on Tuesday.

“The intensive care units are very busy and the health workers are exhausted,” said André Simonazzi.

Since the hospital beds in Switzerland are practically full of Covid patients, there is pressure on the country’s resorts to deliver a vacation time that is as cluster-free as possible.

All the more under the watchful eye of its neighbors, who had to introduce travel restrictions to prevent their own citizens from rushing across the border to enjoy the Swiss slopes.

CNN’s Gaëlle Fournier contributed to this report.

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