“Testing positive and not being able to get home is just not something I could comprehend,” says avid skier Louise Johnson, who is staring down the barrel of a ski-free winter.
Louise, 42, from the New Forest, runs a marine marketing company and skis every year in the French Alps with her partner, father, uncle and several friends.
“We were all ready to hit go on the booking in December then restrictions began tightening and ultimately the French closed their borders. Yes of course it’s the skiing, but it’s more than that – it’s the aprés, food and the atmosphere. A holiday is supposed to be simple and stress free, and the thought of getting stuck abroad is impossible.”
Louise is not alone. With constantly changing rules both in the UK and abroad, the very idea of going skiing is just too etched with worry this year for many, especially for families.
While children under 12 are exempt from Covid regulations in most places (aside from the US and Canada, where anyone must test on entry from the ages of two and five respectively), families with either unvaccinated children or those with one jab between the age of 12 and 16 must submit to regular testing – and the accompanied cost and hassle. Things are easier in Switzerland, where the age threshold is higher – kids under 16 are exempt – but basic costs of the holiday there are likely to be higher.
While the UK last week dropped all testing requirements for Brits returning from abroad, the ever-changing rules to enter other countries are not easy to navigate for many who are quite simply worn down with pandemic fatigue.
Jemma Sayers, a horse physiotherapist from Dorset, says: “My fiancé and I normally go away snowboarding at this time of year but just don’t want to because of all the hassle of having to PCR and possibly having to quarantine when we get home. I work incredibly hard and have a big business to run with enough hassle every day so I don’t want to deal with any more worry. Hopefully things will be a bit easier in the summer.”
I’ve been away twice this year – to Andermatt (Switzerland) for its opening weekend in October and then in December to Les Arcs (France) and then Verbier (Switzerland). While wearing a mask at altitude took some getting used to, and showing your Covid pass at every bar, restaurant and hotel you enter is a pain, they are an easy trade for the fun that can still be had on the slopes. (Though I do pity anyone, especially families, attempting to fill in a Passenger Locator Form for the first time.)
The real hassle is the testing – even if you’re negative. Testing adds extra cost, time and stress onto the trip, not to mention worry. During the run-up to both my ski trips, navigating the ever-changing testing landscape was all-consuming. I worried myself sick, shouted at the computer and made mistakes buying the wrong tests, not having them delivered in time and then having to rebook at the last minute – and I travel for a living!
One family of five I know returned from two weeks’ skiing in La Rosière, France on January 3 (they escaped before the border closed) and were still isolating a week later, waiting on PCR results with kids missing the first week of school.
Then there were the plane-loads of British skiers turned away from Innsbruck on Boxing Day for having the wrong paperwork thanks to rules that were changed without notice. We have also seen many flight cancellations with little or no warning from airlines.
If you can stomach the admin, things are relatively normal in Switzerland, which last winter kept its ski resorts open and lifts turning for tourists. In both Andermatt and Verbier I managed to eat fondue and give myself a hangover from drinking shots.
In France and Austria, things are slightly more dampened. Nightclubs are closed, there’s table service in bars and no dancing allowed inside. In Les Arcs I went to the Folie Douce on its opening day of the season and, try as they might, the team of dancers struggled to create atmosphere in a near-empty bar where our group was the only ones dancing (outside).
Fellow travel writer Felix Milns visited Val d’Isère in early December and reported a “massive” queue outside Cocorico, where would-be revellers waited for their Covid credentials to be checked.
In Austria, the fun police are out in force. Andy Butterworth, owner of Kaluma Travel Ltd, which runs catered chalets in St Anton, said the popular resort was “as busy as ever” during Christmas and New Year and while all was “fairly normal in terms of skiing”, the après has taken a hit.
“It’s just not as wild as people are used to,” he says. “There is a 10pm curfew for bars and restaurants, which no one really understands but sticks to. Après-ski is still après-ski, just without the dancing on the dancefloor or drinking at the bar – you have to stay at your table.”
Despite Covid, the majority of skiers I spoke to in writing this article – and in recent weeks – are still determined to go away. A shout out on Twitter this morning was met with unending positivity and camaraderie amongst skiers determined to travel, come what may.
Personal trainer Ollie Martin typifies the die-hard desire to ski. Though forced to cancel two family ski trips already this winter, he hasn’t lost hope of getting to the mountains himself.
“The first trip to Crans-Montana over Christmas was cancelled and not reinstated by the travel agent when Switzerland briefly imposed a 14-day quarantine on Brits in early December,” explains Ollie. “We then re-routed to a hotel in Bardonecchia, Italy, deciding to drive. Those plans were then scuppered when the French said we couldn’t drive across France so it was pretty much impossible to get there.
“We can’t go at half-term or Easter because our oldest has A-levels so we can’t risk isolation and missing school,” he says. “I’m gutted – a ski holiday is seen as a luxury but I see it as a necessity for mental and physical health, especially for the kids.”
Ollie is hoping to ski in La Grave next month, if France lifts restrictions, but ineligible for his Covid booster – his second vaccine was less than three months ago – the trip will be last-minute.
My conclusion? Skiing is worth the fight. Like most Brits, I didn’t go last year and had underestimated how much being in the mountains boosts my mood, allowing me to return to work with fresh perspective and energy.
This ski season might not be “normal”, but travel still has its allure. The pandemic has taught me to be grateful for the small wins. Skiing is most definitely a win.