A European dispute over the wisdom of opening ski resorts in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic has turned into a battle that pits France, Italy and Germany – whose slopes remain closed – against the defiant alpine nations of Switzerland and Austria, backed by Spain.
The French flag is still fluttering above the entrance to Châtel’s town hall, but visitors to the Haute-Savoie ski resort may be forgiven for believing that they had accidentally slipped into Switzerland.
Larger Swiss flags have adorned the French tricolor since the weekend, in protest of France’s decision to close the ski lifts throughout the Christmas weekend while neighboring Switzerland keeps its resorts running.
“The decision to close was made in a hurry and without coordination,” raged the local mayor, Nicolas Rubin, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “We would have a hearing with the government. Instead, they pulled out the carpet below us. ”
Châlet is located in Portes du Soleil, one of the world’s largest ski areas, which stretches across the border between France and Switzerland. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, two thirds of the slopes are now closed. However, those in the remaining Swiss third are still open; local authorities have chosen smaller restrictions despite a relatively large number of infections.
“It’s like turning your head or tail: on the one hand you can ski, on the other you can not. It’s absurd, says Rubin. You can reach the Swiss resort of Mongins in less than five minutes by car. Anyone who wants to go should go there, and it will soon be crowded. ”
To satisfy Rubin, the French government is considering a seven-day isolation period for French citizens traveling abroad to ski during the Christmas weekend. Prime Minister Jean Castex said on BFM TV on Wednesday that random border controls could be introduced along the border with Switzerland. Similar controls are on the cards in the Pyrenees, and Spain also plans to reopen its locations.
But Alexandre Maulin, head of the Domaines skiables de France (DSF), which represents French ski resorts, told Jowharthat the isolation measure would be very difficult to apply and described it as little more than a “PR move”.
The French government has struggled to appease the industry since announcing last week that ski resorts would be left out in the cold even as other sectors gradually emerge from the country’s second Covid-19 lock. It has promised to compensate ski lift operators and increase unemployment benefits for seasonal workers – measures that the DSF manager considers insufficient.
“All we ask is to be able to work,” Maulin said, lamenting “the lack of unity between European governments.”
Castex has promised to continue efforts to reach an agreement across Europe and stressed on Wednesday that “Diplomacy is still at stake, the matrix has not been completely cast”. However, the European Commission has so far shown little interest in introducing common rules, much to the dismay of Paris and Berlin. While France is annoyed with Switzerland and Spain, Germany has its own problems with neighboring Austria.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for an EU-wide ban on skiing until January 10 to stop the spread of Covid-19. But Austria strongly opposes restrictions on its important winter sports industry, a key component of the local economy. German officials are particularly wary of the precedent set in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl, nicknamed the “Ibiza of the Alps”, where thousands of European tourists became infected before taking the virus home with them.
Under pressure from Berlin, which warned that they would be quarantined for holidaymakers returning from abroad, the Austrian government chose a middle ground on Wednesday, so that resorts could reopen on Christmas Eve but made the ski holiday almost impossible.
Restaurants, hotels and tourist accommodation will be closed until January 7, says the Austrian government, which means that skiing during the holiday period will mainly be limited to people who live close enough to a resort for a day trip. And in an obvious concession to Rome, Berlin and Paris, Austria also said that it is introducing a new quarantine requirement for everyone who comes from their countries and many more.
Italy, whose ski resorts will remain closed throughout the Christmas weekend, is considering similar restrictions for citizens who are tempted by a dash on the Swiss slopes. The main Italian resorts are located in Covid-19 “red zones”, where partial lock-in measures are in place to dampen a second wave of the virus that has killed more than 50,000. Giuseppe Conte, the country’s prime minister, said this year that it would not be possible to “allow holidays in the snow. We can not afford it. ”
Meanwhile in Spain, where infections have fallen sharply, the government has said it is ready to reopen ski resorts – with conditions still under discussion – from 11 December. The deviation from the French rules has angered officials in France’s southwestern Occitanie region bordering Spain. Between the two, the small principality of Andorra may have difficulty reopening its slopes, as President Emmanuel Macron is also “co-prince” of the micro-state of the Pyrenees.
The French president has promised to continue efforts to lead the Swiss and Spanish authorities and “avoid creating an unbalanced situation with resorts in France, Italy and Germany that are likely to close while others open.” He has promised to “deter” French holidaymakers from traveling abroad.
But losing home skiers is hardly the only problem for France’s battered tourism industry. The Alps alone attract 43 percent of the world’s skiers and generate about 28 billion euros in revenue per year. French resorts take in the second largest profit, after Austria. That position is now being jeopardized, warns Maulin.
“We do not want anyone sick, but when one country opens and the other remains closed, it is necessarily an impact,” said the DSF chief. According to his organization, the French ski industry has already lost between 15 and 20 percent of its operations as a result of the first shutdown earlier this year, a deficit of about 2 billion euros.
Other, newer competitors could benefit from the closures in France, Italy and Germany. In Bulgaria, for example, the Bansko resort, which is popular with budget travelers, plans to reopen during the Christmas period despite a sharp increase in coronavirus infections and poorly stretched hospitals in the country.
All this has exacerbated the fear of Rubin, the mayor of Châtel, where up to 40 percent of visitors normally come from the UK, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – an important clientele that can now turn to neighboring countries.
“We knew this season would be different from everyone else, with foreign visitors down,” he sighs. “But this is now a disaster.”
This story was adapted from the original in French.