Storm over German call for EU ski tourism ban

Germany’s plan to seek an EU-wide ban on ski tourism over the Christmas holiday season to halt coronavirus transmissions has struck a nerve among European peers, including in neighbouring Austria.

While governments across the bloc battle to bring down infection numbers, each has taken different approaches on the cherished winter sport season.

Here is a summary of where key players stand on the issue: 

– Germany –

Authorities in Bavaria, Germany’s ski region, have spoken out emphatically for a ban on holidays on the slopes.

Bavaria’s state premier Markus Soeder said current infection rates meant “we just can’t have the classic ski holidays”.

He has also warned Germans against simply crossing the border to hit the slopes in Austria, as they would face a 10-day quarantine upon return — even for day-trips — since the neighbouring country is classed as a coronavirus risk zone.

– Italy –

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte earlier this week mooted the idea of coordinating with France and Germany for a “common European protocol” to halt ski tourism.

He told the talk show Otto e Mezzo: “It’s not possible to allow holidays on the snow, we can’t afford it.”

No further details have so far emerged, and Conte would also have to negotiate with Italy’s powerful regional authorities before any ban could be implemented.

Ski resort operators are bitterly opposed, with some warning that following Merkel’s call would mean killing off their entire season. 

Giovanni Brasso, who runs Sestriere, a company that manages Via Lattea resort, told AFP that “we make 45 percent of our earnings for the entire season during Christmas holidays”. 

“If that’s taken away from us, we won’t be able to go on.”

– France –

French winter sport resorts are free to open over the Christmas vacation, Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday, but ski lifts will have to remain shut.

Castex said mountain holidays were still on the cards but downhill skiing was effectively ruled out.

“Naturally, everybody is free to travel to resorts to enjoy the clean air of our beautiful mountains, and the shops which will be open, although bars and restaurants won’t be,” Castex told a news conference.

“But all ski lifts and collective infrastructures will be closed to the public,” he said.

Cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoe hikes are among snow activities that do not usually require mechanical lifts.

France’s winter sport sector says it generates some 11 billion euros ($13 billion) in revenues per year and employs 120,000 people during the season.

– Austria –

Vienna has voiced opposition to signing up to a ski holidays ban.

Calling ski tourism “part of our national identity”, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said that such winter holidays will go on. 

What would be ruled out are apres-ski parties.

Strict distancing rules will also be ordered to lower transmission risks, officials said.

Tourists must keep at least one metre (three feet) apart at all times, wear masks in cable cars and gondolas, and bars and restaurants will serve drink and food to seated customers only.

The Austrian ski resort of Ischgl gained notoriety earlier this year after it became an early Covid-19 hotspot and infected tourists there helped spread the virus across Europe.

– Spain –

Spain has so far been counting on opening its ski stations, but conditions are yet to be defined between regional authorities and the federal government.

In the Pyrenees, the Catalonia region wants to open its resorts from December 21, the date when curbs preventing people from entering or leaving regions are due to be lifted.

But some ski operators are hoping for an even earlier start.

“At the moment, we are expecting to open on December 11,… no one told us we can’t open,” said a spokeswoman for the operator of Baqueira Beret ski resort at Catalonia’s Val d’Aran region.

Spanish ski resorts welcomed more than 5.6 million tourists during the 2018-2019 season, said the national association of ski operators Atudem.

– Bulgaria –

Bulgaria has no plans to cancel ski holidays in the country, with all three major resorts — Bansko, Pamporovo and Borovets — to open in December.

“There is no reason to cancel the ski season. It’s not the sport but the apres-ski parties that sparked the spread of Covid-19 in Europe,” said Ivan Obreikov, spokesman for Ulen, a company operating ski lifts and gondolas in Bansko.

Restaurants across the country are shut at the moment up to December 21. But hotels and holiday homes are open for business.

– Slovenia –

A decision on whether to open the stations over Christmas on Slovenia’s Julian Alps are pending.

An ongoing ban on public transport at the moment applies to cable cars. 

Nevertheless, most ski resorts have begun preparing their courses with artificial snow in the hopes that by December, they’d get the go ahead to let tourists in. 

The economy ministry said it was expecting the European Commission to make a recommendation to member states.

– European Commission –

Brussels however flung the ball back to the courts of individual governments.

“The first thing to know is that the decision whether or not to allow skiing is, of course, a national competence. This is not European competence,” said commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker.

“Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gradual and science-based and effective lifting of the containment measures.”