French ski season ‘a complete write-off’ as Government extends lift closures

Lucy Aspden
·6-min read
ski resorts closed - sebastien nogier/shutterstock
ski resorts closed - sebastien nogier/shutterstock

The ski season in France is likely to be “a complete write-off”, one Government official has said, as ministers announce an extension to the closure of the country's ski lifts.

Ski resort bosses were hoping lifts would be permitted to start turning from February 1, putting an end to their closure since autumn. But French tourism minister Jean Baptiste Lemoyne yesterday confirmed they must remain closed for the foreseeable future, due to rising coronavirus cases.

“A reopening in the middle or end of February is highly unlikely,” he said after a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron yesterday. “We are looking at a complete write-off for the season.”

The news comes as resorts hoped to reopen in time for the February half term holidays – the busiest period of the season, which sees visitors from across France and the rest of Europe flock to the Alps. But with a case rate of 206 per 100,000 and 26,784 new cases reported yesterday, it is likely to be one of the quietest Februarys on the slopes in recent history – and a disaster for businesses.

Coronavirus France Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus France Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Lemoyne confirmed earlier this month that the ski industry in France is worth roughly €11 billion and is responsible for between 120,000 and 400,000 jobs, according to varying reports – from those directly involved with skiing, such as instructors and lift operators, to people who work indirectly in the supply chain for ski holidays.

Le Dauphiné reported on the economic impact this decision will have on the nation’s ski resorts earlier this week, with the Ecole du Ski France (ESF) set to lose €270 million this winter.

Laurent Wauquiez, president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, said: “The prospect of ski resorts not reopening would be a disaster for all mountain professionals in our region. This decision would condemn tens of thousands of employees, thousands of businesses, businesses and artisans to an unprecedented economic tragedy. Not reopening our resorts is bringing the whole mountain and its inhabitants to their knees.”

The Savoie Mont Blanc Tourist board predicts the region, which includes major ski resorts such as Courchevel, Tignes, Méribel, Val Thorens, La Plagne and Morzine, will have lost out on €2 billion in tourism revenue by the end of January. The continued closure throughout February, which accounts for 35 per cent of visitors each winter, will cause this figure to exceed €4 billion – and the loss will continue to rise, potentially to €5.8 billion if restrictions are extended further.

Meetings with ski resort bosses will continue in order to “finalise the economic support measures” for the industry. “The snow cannons are not going to be working, so the cannons of compensation must be there,” said Lemoyne.

ski protest
ski protest

The minister has confirmed that occupancy rates in the nation’s ski resorts have already dropped to “20 or 30 per cent” at most, “compared with 95 per cent usually” during the Christmas holidays.

Jean-Luc Boch, president of France Montagne and the National Association of Mayors of Mountain Stations, is involved in conversation with ministers. He has said he is “very worried”.

“Pragmatism will have to prevail because otherwise, the future of developed French mountains will be catastrophic. I keep asking for help from socio-professionals and traders who risk losing everything. Do you realize that a lifetime's savings can be wiped out in a matter of months? Today, the mountain is sacrificed,” he told Le Dauphiné.

There isn’t currently a lockdown in France and people are allowed to travel to resorts and stay in hotels, but restaurants and bars remain closed and there is a national 6pm curfew.

Resorts have been allowed to operate activities that don’t require people to use ski lifts, such as sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating and even ski lessons on lower beginner pistes. There has been an uptick in the number of people ski touring and hiking, in order to access the untouched slopes too.

st gervais - Saint Gervais
st gervais - Saint Gervais

A statement from Val d’Isere said the Government’s announcement is the “end of the suspense.”

“This year will have been very special for the ski resorts, but we are keeping our spirits up, and continue to offer you new snow activities in the village,” it said.

Elsewhere in Europe and Italy has also extended the closure of its ski resorts, until February 15 at the earliest. The slopes are open for locals only in Austria, with a decision on whether international visitors will be welcome expected by the end of January. In Switzerland, the slopes are also open, and welcoming visitors – but strict measures remain in place to curb the spread of the virus, with resorts such as Wengen and St Moritz deciding to test entire villages after cases of the new variant were detected recently.

What does this mean for ski holidays?

While devastating for locals in France, this news also further dampens any remaining hopes of a ski holiday this winter for British skiers and snowboarders.

Non-essential travel is currently banned under national lockdown restrictions, and it is unlikely that holidays will be possible until the spring – at the earliest. While this does leave some time for a ski holiday, with high-altitude resorts able to open into May, it is unlikely travel will be restriction-free or without the need to quarantine or test. All the Alpine nations currently have entry restrictions in place for arrivals from Britain.

Some operators have decided to address the uncertainty head-on, and have cancelled all ski holidays for the remainder of this winter, enabling them to put all efforts into next season – with bookings already booming.

Others, like the UK’s leading operators Crystal Ski Holidays and Inghams, are holding out to see what happens. Trips with both are cancelled until February 12 and February 28 respectively, because of the national lockdown, but bosses are yet to decide on the fate of late-season trips.

“Confidence is sadly waning,” said Rupert Longsdon, founder of The Oxford Ski Company.

“This latest news will definitely lead to the announcement of more hotels and ski operators not opening at all this winter. This is very sad news for the ski industry,” said Longsdon.

Looking on the bright side, next winter is set to be busier than ever before for operators and resorts, as skiers keenly await their return to the slopes.

While the likes of Crystal and Inghams are reporting increased year-on-year bookings already, others are on standby and encouraging guests to secure their spot on the slopes sooner rather than later.

"We are hoping that our suppliers will be open for bookings earlier than ever and we are already adding people to our priority pre-reservation list so they are first in line,” said Jane Bolton, managing director of Erna Low.

“Clients don't even need to pay a deposit now, they can simply tell us what they would like to book and we will reserve it for them as soon as bookings open subject to availability,” she said.