When Covid-19 closed Europe’s ski season in early March – leaving thousands of skiers stranded when their resorts shut and others having to cancel trips – some assumed they would be able make up for it this winter, when everything would be back to normal. As the 2020-21 season approaches, that clearly isn’t the case and we face another winter of travel restrictions, special measures and possible lockdowns. Where does that leave skiing?
Will I be able to go skiing this winter?
Between November and May there’s bound to be at least a day or two when UK dry slopes can open … but if you mean skiing on actual snowy mountains in the Alps, things are less certain there. A lot can and will change between now and the start of the season in December, and again by its close at the end of April, but the present situation looks dire for UK-based skiers hoping to visit the most popular Alpine ski countries without having to quarantine afterwards. But as long as there isn’t a complete ban on international travel or a UK lockdown for the entire winter, you should be able to find somewhere to practise your turns, even if that means heading to UK slopes, in Scotland and northern England.
Where is (currently) off limits?
France, Austria and Switzerland – all popular with British skiers – are currently off the UK government’s travel corridor list, and those who go anyway must quarantine for two weeks upon their return. The same applies for Bulgaria, Spain, Andorra, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Canada (and our borders are closed to the US). Norway requires Britons to quarantine for 10 days on arrival. From 23 November, British tourists arriving in Finland will be asked to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test result no more than 72 hours old, then quarantine for another 72 hours (unless the visit is shorter than that) and retested.
Where can I go?
At the time of publishing, Italy and Germany, both with fantastic skiing and easily reached by rail or road, remain on the travel corridors list. If that is still the case in December, Germany’s top resorts – Garmish-Partenkirchen, Steinplatte/Winklmoosalm and Waidring/Reit im Winkl, all in Bavaria – are good bets.
Eastern Europe and Scandinavia may offer alternatives if the western Alps are closed to Britons. Poland (for Zakopane), Sweden and Turkey are currently on the corridors list and have great skiing (though are harder to reach without flying); even Greece has a few fun resorts on the mainland. Japan and South Korea also don’t require quarantine. But travellers do need to bear in mind that flight options may be severely limited to some destinations.
Scotland’s resorts could have their busiest winter for years. Andy Meldrum, chair of Ski Scotland and managing director of the Glencoe Mountain Resort, says: “We expect to see an increase in visitors from within the UK this year, which should provide a good boost to the local economy as these guests are more likely to visit for long periods of time and stay in local accommodation.”
Has the ski industry given up on this winter?
Ski resorts across central Europe, Scandinavia, the US and Canada are planning for a busy season. Most countries have a strong domestic marketand indeed many Alpine resorts experienced a bumper summer season as their nationals holidayed closer to home.
“After an excellent summer, French resorts feel confident about the winter,” says Nadine Carle-Edgar, who represents six French ski regions, including Savoie Mont Blanc. “They expect to have mainly French visitors but hope the British can come.”
UK package operators are having a harder time planning ahead. They ordinarily book charter flights for the season ahead, and need to decide whether to commit to them over the next two months. Many have already decided to reduce their offering, especially large chalets where different household groups would normally mix, and operators are recruiting fewer seasonal staff.
“We’ve scaled back by 30% and are not offering catered chalets this season,” says Karen Abrams, spokesperson for Crystal Ski, the UK’s largest ski operator. A decline in demand and “the added complexities of implementing rigorous health and safety measures” are blamed. Most bookings so far are for March and April, she says, primarily driven by customers who had had to amend their holidays when Covid hit, but it expected to see late bookings closer to the start of the season. Crystal, like many operators, is emphasising that people can book now knowing that if destinations remain on the quarantine lists, customers will be offered full refunds. However, more skiers are expected to choose last-minute self-drive and self-catering trips to avoid exposure to Covid-19, and may favour quieter, smaller villages over mega-resorts.
How can I reach the slopes without flying?
Eurostar’s non-stop “ski trains” to the Alps won’t be running this winter, but indirect journeys via Paris will be bookable from October. Trains via Paris Brussels or Amsterdam to Swiss Italian and Austrian resorts offer more options, though some services may be reduced.
The Nightjet sleeper train to the Austrian Tirol from Cologne (via Eurostar to Brussels) is running, and also the Alpen Express from Amsterdam to Innsbruck, the Arlberg and other Austrian resorts. If more western European ski regions become safe corridors again, it will be possible to travel by train through France (and other countries not deemed corridors) without having to quarantine, as long as you don’t make a “transit stop”, that is when passengers get on, or you or others disembark, mix with others, and reboard.
What will it be like in resorts?
Most resorts are establishing details of how things will work (the Domaine Skiable de France will meet in early October to discuss directives for all French ski areas) but basic rules appear common, such as wearing masks in lift queues, enclosed lifts, communal accommodation areas and indoor public spaces, plus social distancing of 1 to 1.5 metres. Many resorts will ask visitors to download a regional app, to make reservations and order food in restaurants. Some may limit the number of lift-passes sold or make advance booking necessary.
There is some variation, and as well as following national guidelines, resorts and regions will implement their own measures.
Austria has a nationwide programme to regularly test people working in travel and tourism.
Switzerland will not require people to wear masks on chairlifts, but some French resorts will.
In the Italian Dolomites resort of Alta Badia, covered cable cars will run at reduced capacity and at the highest possible speeds to reduce time spent in an enclosed environment.
Lessons should be able to go ahead, though in St Anton, for example, the ski kindergarten won’t operate.
The main concern is around dining – particularly in tiny mountain huts or vast self-service places with skiers packed onto benches– and après-ski, which will have to be carefully managed. Nadine Carle-Edgar says après-ski may become outdoors only, with more establishments offering takeaway and delivery.
Austria’s boisterous après-ski scene will be toned down, with the usual crowds around bars prevented in St Anton, and the major music events that usually kick off the season in Ischgl cancelled. Ischgl, which was the centre of a major outbreak in February and March, says it will move away from “party tourism”, with no traditional après-ski this winter. Visitors must show a negative Covid test result less than 72 hours old, which can be arranged at a local screening station for a yet-to-be agreed cost. Free “buffs” (tubular scarfs) will be given out with ski passes there in order to cover faces and mouths when required (although these will be made of the usual fine, breathable fabric).
All that aside, the skiing itself should be unaffected.
How will different accommodation options work?
Social distancing and mask-wearing in communal areas will be the norm at hotels, hostels and shared chalets, and it’s expected self-catering will be the preferred choice for many. There will be fewer large, mixed-group chalets available due to the challenges involved in operating them safely.
Typical new procedures at various kinds of accommodation include VIP SKI’s chalets in France and Austria, where guests will be temperature-checked on arrival (and staff on a daily basis), rooms won’t be serviced during the stay, and guests will be banned from kitchens. Peak Retreats has a new service for self-caterers to pre-order ready-to-cook meals.
The UCPA operates all-inclusive budget-focused ski holidays in France with hundreds of guests based at its large centres, many sleeping in 4-6 people dorms. It will continue to mix strangers in rooms where necessary but in smaller rooms with bunkbeds, they will be asked to sleep in a “top to tail” arrangement. Buffets will be replaced by table service, and guests asked to use their own water bottles at dinner.
Have prices been affected?
Though details haven’t been announced, operators are planning to drastically reduce capacity, meaning there is unlikely to be the great deals you might expect. Some are offering incentives to encourage early booking, especially in terms of flexibility and cancellation policies, to ensure people get full refunds for coronavirus-related cancellations. Ski France, for example, will allow skiers who cancel because of Covid-19 to get a full refund up to 24 hours before departure for stays at its range of hotels, if booked before 31 October. The Val dArly region in France is offering full refunds for any cancellation due to Covid for trips arranged via its Val d’Arly Booking Centre, showing that it’s not only package holidays that will be protected. The French resort of Les Gets will give total reimbursement of any unused ski passes. There are deals around for those booking early. Crystal has £100 off 100 trips across Europe, for example.
Should I book, and if so, what?
Advance booking would help support the ski industry, but with the situation changing so fast, booking last minute to whichever snowy country is viable will be the way to go for most. Those happy to quarantine and who have a certain date and destination in mind may think differently, so could consider nabbing any early bargains they spy, ideally a package to ensure you get your money back should the trip be cancelled.
Families who want to have something booked for the school holidays might try an Easter break (1-18 April for most schools), rather than February half-term. Those determined to go to a country off the travel corridor list could squeeze in a short break between 31 March and 4 April, leaving 14 days of the school holidays to quarantine. The same idea could work at Christmas, a mini-break from 18-21 December, then two weeks of school holidays to quarantine.
Holger Gassler, head of marketing at the Tirol tourist board, advises not travelling to resorts on Saturdays, the usual busy changeover day.
Skiers may also want to book accommodation near the slopes so they don’t have to use ski buses, and reserve ski equipment ahead to avoid the usual first-night crush in the hire shops.