By Matteo Berlenga
PASSO DEL TONALE, Italy (Reuters) - Europe's ski resorts are desperately trying to salvage the new season amid the pandemic, but travel restrictions, the need for social distancing and disagreement among governments about whether to open at all mean they have a mountain to climb.
During the first wave of infections last season, some ski centres became breeding grounds for the coronavirus, accelerating its spread across Europe.
With the continent in the grip of another wave of the virus, some authorities are nervous about reopening slopes for Christmas, the New Year and beyond, even though resorts have plans to mitigate the risks of a repeat of early 2020.
"If we (Italians) are the only ones not to open, it would be an economic disaster," said Michele Bertolini, who heads a lobby group for owners of local businesses like restaurants and ski rental shops in the small resort of Passo del Tonale in the Trentino region, near Austria and Switzerland.
National leaders are at odds over what to do.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said it would not be possible "to allow (Christmas) holidays on the snow" and wants an agreement among European countries to act in unison.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which has few resorts but many skiers who flock to other countries, agrees. She admits, however, that striking a deal will be difficult given resistance from Austria, a skiing hotspot.
"If we are closed but other areas are open, then probably Italians will choose to spend their holidays in another country and this would be doubly disastrous," Bertolini told Reuters.
At the Passo del Tonale resort, machines pump artificial snow on to slopes in anticipation of the season starting. Chair lifts bob idly on cables and restaurants are locked shut.
Swiss resorts, meanwhile, have started opening and do not plan to close, despite a relatively high number of deaths nationally related to the coronavirus.
"If it's open, I'll definitely ski," said Swede Max Ahlstedt, on the glacier in Zermatt which offers year-round skiing. "You just have to...accept wearing a mask."
Austria is under a national lockdown that ends on Dec. 7 and resorts hope to reopen before Christmas. France is keeping resorts open but lifts closed at Christmas.
'WIN BACK TRUST'
Travel restrictions complicate matters, as many of the millions of Europeans who ski each year go abroad to do so.
Austria depends heavily on tourism from Germany, which currently requires anyone arriving from Austria to go into quarantine. Conte has threatened similar measures for Italians visiting Austria to ski.
Despite the obstacles, some resorts are hoping to open, even if numbers are sharply down compared to a normal season.
"We want to send a signal that we have learned a lot from our experiences and win back trust," said Andreas Steibl, director of the tourism body at the resort of Ischgl, the location of Austria's worst coronavirus outbreak to date.
Thousands of people were infected there last winter, including foreign visitors who then went home.
Repairing its reputation is essential to the resort that called itself the "Ibiza of the Alps" because of its party scene. Ischgl was originally supposed to open on Nov. 26. That has been pushed provisionally to Dec. 17.
Enjoying the great outdoors on skis typically involves spending a lot of time inside.
Many ski lifts are enclosed, restaurants are the only place to get a hot meal on the slopes during the day and skiers like to stop in bars at the end of the day.
With social distancing rules reducing capacity in those places, and fewer visitors overall, the season will be a shadow of previous ones.
"No one believes in a 20% fall (in Austrian revenues) anymore," said Oliver Fritz, senior economist at Austrian economic think-tank Wifo.
"My rather optimistic forecast was minus 30% for the whole period but even getting near that would be sensational."
For national economies that is billions of euros less. In Austria alone, the Finance Ministry estimates that revenue from ski resorts is worth roughly 800 million euros a week.
For local communities the longer term impact is worrying.
"We have infrastructure, mainly consisting of ski lifts, which needs a lot of investment," said Bertolini in Passo del Tonale.
"If these big investors hit economic crisis, my great fear is that we won't just say goodbye to next year but we will need several years to get back on our feet."
(Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna, Crispian Balmer, Eleanor Biles and Giselda Vagnoni in Rome, Emma Thomasson and Thomas Seythal in Berlin and Michael Shields in Zurich; Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mike Collett-White)