This winter, Switzerland was the only country in Europe to open ski resorts all season, and to all.
In an unwavering act of defiance despite huge pressure from EU countries to close, the Swiss government remained steadfast and opened ski resorts at a time when other European nations were entering their second waves and locking down. At the start of the season, as Christmas approached, new contagious variants had been discovered, travel bans were being reintroduced and the World Health Organisation was urging caution – specifically to skiers.
Now the winter is at its end, Swiss resorts are congratulating themselves on operating a safe and successful season, against all odds. Jean-Daniel Clivaz, ski instructor and president of Crans-Montana tourism, summed up the feeling among resorts: “Switzerland has achieved a good balance between restrictions to keep Covid-19 numbers down, and, prioritising the mental and physical health benefits to people of being in the mountains.”
In fact, the defiant Swiss never doubted that their lucrative ski season would go ahead – despite a global health crisis. Rolf Wegmüller, resort director in Wengen, said: “Opening for winter was never in doubt, we had the Government’s support and just had to wait to hear from the authorities about the measures we needed to implement.”
With the Government backing the ski season the mood in Switzerland was positive. Wegmüller explained “there was very little opposition” to reopening resorts from the Swiss, any grumblings only came from residents in big cities, “who don’t ski and whose jobs aren’t linked to tourism.” – across the border in Austria the nation was also divided.
The mood was bolstered even further as winter got into full swing. Many Swiss skiers reported having “the best ever season” thanks to above-average snowfall, few queues for lifts and quiet slopes.
However, it certainly wasn’t a ‘normal’ experience. Food was take-out only, terraces were closed and face masks had to be worn throughout the resort, including on chairlifts – this led to most people skiing with their masks under their chins, an unexpected fashion accessory. Gondolas were only filled to two thirds of their usual capacity and hotels and their restaurants were open for guests only, with tables spaced 1.5 meters apart.
But the mountains proved to be a safe social space – groups of friends could ski together and the national rules dictated that up to five people could meet indoors.
The prolonged closure of lifts in France and Italy this winter has caused financial distress to the tune of millions, if not billions, of Euros. From an economic point of view, across Switzerland, resorts and their finances fared very differently – the nationalities of their usual guests and proximity to big cities for day trippers influences how well a resort’s bank balance fared greatly.
In Grindelwald, for the first time in its history, the Jungfrau Railway Group, which operates ski trains and lifts, suffered losses to the amount of CHF9.7 million, after record profits in 2019 of CHF53.3 million. They attribute much of this to the collapse of travel from their key Asian markets, which usually accounts for 26 per cent of visitors. Conversely, the resort of Fribourg, whose usual clientele is 95 per cent Swiss, saw visits increase 30 per cent in a record-breaking year.
Resorts reported being busy during weekends, and very quiet midweek due to the lack of tourists, which necessitated money saving actions in many places. Pierre-Henri Mainetti, marketing manager for Crans-Montana Tourism, explained that, like many resorts, after a 30 per cent drop in day lift pass sales, the resort was forced to close some pistes and lifts from March 9 to cut costs.
Maxime Cottet, CEO of the resort’s lift company, explained the consequences of this: “The knock-on effects of the quieter 2020/2021 season will be a reduction in investment for the next four years. We will delay the building of a planned new lift until 2023.” Elsewhere, ski schools in Crans-Montana and Verbier cut class sizes for social distancing and resultantly increased prices – after positive feedback, these changes will be permanent.
Verbier had a dramatic start to the season when a national 10-day retrospective hotel quarantine was introduced just before Christmas, following the detection of a new variant of the virus in the UK. This provoked inaccurate, worldwide reports of scandalous Brits fleeing the country in the middle of the night and threatened to tarnish the resort’s reputation.
Simon Wiget, director of Verbier tourism, explained investments were made to make the resort Covid safe: “We invested CHF1 million to employ 50 Covid ‘angels’ for security, added buses to reduce queuing and changed the ski lesson meeting place to enable social distancing.” In an act of solidarity, big signs at the ski lifts read: “Together, let’s save the season.”
But inevitably this huge investment was never going to be able to ensure pre-pandemic visitor numbers. On a ‘normal’ day during a ‘normal’ season 25,000 people ski in Verbier, which sits at the centre of Switzerland’s biggest ski area. This winter the highest number was 17,000.
Marcus Batter, owner of the four-star Cordée des Alpes hotel in Verbier, said that usually his hotel usually averages 80 per cent occupancy mid-week – this season this has been halved, but 40 per cent is still admirable during a global pandemic. He said: “Considering the circumstances, the season has gone well. Covid reduced turnover so we had to become more efficient to make a profit.”
Wiget explained why he thinks the season was a success: “Everyone was just so happy and grateful to ski, they stuck to the rules.” After a tough season, and most important for British skiers now starved for snow for over a year, Wiget is adamant Brits will be welcomed back – “An international spirit is important for ski resorts and part of our DNA, we can’t wait to welcome Brits back.”
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