The slopes are deathly silent bar the sporadic swoosh of fresh snow sliding off pine trees in the warm sun. I am out skinning in Les Gets and there’s no doubt about it: the soul-soothing serenity of go-slow snow sports – ski touring, snowshoeing, cross-country skating – has ensured a certain festive magic for adopted locals like myself and domestic tourists lucky enough to wind up in the French ski resort over the Christmas period.
But with the holidays over and the scant few French tourists back home, ski resorts in France are frighteningly empty. This week’s return to lockdown in England killed off any bookings from British skiers, including for February half-term, in one fell swoop. Now French prime minister Jean Castex’s announcement last night that ski lifts won’t open this weekend as suggested back in December, is prompting struggling businesses in the Alps to question if they’ll get any season at all.
“Covid has reduced us to having no staff and no business. We are open, but no one is coming. It is devastating.”
Former intensive-care and hospital ward sister from Yorkshire, Jane Sayer, 62, and partner Robert Mewton, 67, have called Les Gets home for 27 years. Prior to the pandemic, their successful airport transfer business SkiTransfers.com and fully-catered Chalet Bluebell employed 16 drivers and chalet staff. Today they are just two, with three of their original 14 minibuses on the road and no hope of recuperating this season’s lost revenue.
“We are living on a knife edge, we can only plan hours ahead. I’ll burn €5,000 worth of fuel to heat the chalet on the proviso that I might get a booking. It is an absolute nightmare, an awful situation of which we have no control.
“We now know for sure that we won’t get any British guests until March, probably all winter. We might get some French business in February, but this is nothing to what we would normally turn over. We are now planning on not having a season at all,” says Jane, whose 18-bed chalet is usually fully booked from Christmas to Easter. Britons account for 14% of the 17,500 guests Les Gets typically hosts each winter. This season’s alarming lack of visitors, coupled with strict sanitary measures, means just three of 18 hotels in Les Gets have managed to open so far.
With Covid-19 infections in France currently three times the daily target of 5,000 cases, set back in December for ski resorts to operate as usual, the French government last night postponed its decision to reopen lifts until at least January 20. The prime minister suggested lifts might get a green light for early February, in time for the traditionally-busy, half-term school holiday.
Les Gets, as a village-resort attracting families and independent skiers who loyally return year after year to the same privately owned chalet or family-run hotel, has fared marginally better than larger resorts. Occupancy during the two-week Christmas period was down 42.7%, compared to 66.8% in big resorts frequented by large tour operators. With no guarantee of opening this season, the resort is considering running one of its two cable cars in February as ‘public transport’ instead. Over Christmas, Chavannes shuttle buses were packed with appropriately masked rogue skiers using it as a lift up the mountain.
“The lift company, town hall, tourist office, inhabitants, everyone, are worried about the future if the lifts remain closed the whole season,” said Pascal Dury, director of Les Gets ski-lift company Sagets. “Everybody in the resort is disappointed by last night’s announcement. We don’t understand the decision, but we remain optimistic and are waiting for January 20 to know more about a possible opening in February.”
The French ski industry lost 1.6 billion euros in turnover during the two-week Christmas period, estimates France’s Chamber of Ski-Area Operators, Domaines Skiables de France. This is in addition to 1.4 billion euros during lockdown in France last March.
At 1,750m on the empty slopes of Mont Chéry, last night’s news that restaurants and bars will remain closed until mid-February at least changes nothing for Teresa and Gary Venning at La Grande Ourse. The season is already lost for the British couple who bought the derelict 1930s chalet – accessible only by cable car – in 2006 and transformed it into a top address, famed in the French Alps for its exceptional food, service and Mont Blanc views from its sun-drenched terrace.
“We have to bring up everything by skidoo. In October we bought all our wines, beers and drinks in readiness for the season. That alone was €20,000. We simply can’t make money on a shorter season,” says Teresa, explaining that “the uncertainty and inability to plan our business” has been the toughest part.
Back in Les Gets village, the ice rink and pop-up Covid test centre, in a Christmas market-style wooden hut on the main street, are both dead. Festive fairy-lights strung between lampposts do nothing to lift the black mood. The endless uncertainty is clearly taking its on toll on frazzled staff in sports-hire shops who have now spent weeks awkwardly explaining to holidaymakers that the limited ski-touring gear and dozen-odd pairs of snowshoes they stock are already rented out. A commendably enterprising chap behind the counter in one sports shop has even taken to renting out his own pair of touring skis, so farcical is the situation.