Ever since the reopening of Austrian ski resorts, images of ski lifts jam-packed with powder enthusiasts eager to carve and wedel down the snowy pistes have circulated on the Internet. Onlookers speak of “ski chaos,” raising eyebrows among healthcare workers and federal government officials. For now, the numbers tell a different story. While Austria’s COVID-19 cases remain stagnant, ski resorts lament a lost winter season.
In Austria, skiing hits close to home. Our connection to the sport dates back centuries; we practically invented it. So despite being in a third “hard” lockdown, Austrians are loath to give up skiing. This seems to have been Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s thinking when he pressured European leaders to reopen ski resorts in time for Christmas, inspired by Finance Minister Gernot Blümel who complained about the billion Euro loss from a mandated closure of ski lifts.
But European officials did not share the Austrian vision. Remembering the fatal events in Ischgl last spring, which, according to Politico, “spread coronavirus across the continent,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed for the closure of all continental ski resorts (German ski resorts will likely remain shuttered this year.). Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reciprocated this, proposing to keep lifts out of service until Jan. 10 (now postponed until Jan. 18). Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized that it would be “impossible” to reopen the ski resorts during the holidays due to the high number of corona infections (The reopening of French ski resorts is tentatively planned for February).
Still, there is an argument to keeping them open. Studies have traced the Ischgl corona clusters to its crowded apres-ski bars, rather than its ski lifts. In addition, outdoor exercise at high elevations is known to be healthy and strengthen the immune system. According to Tirol spokeswoman Julia Scheiring, “The longing for exercise in nature and relaxation in the mountains is particularly strong due to the lockdown.”
Following weeks of negotiation, Kurz found a compromise, arguing that “taking a ski lift is similar to taking public transportation.” Alone among European nation, aside from non-EU member Switzerland, Austria would reopen ski resorts under strict safety measures just for Austrian residents. This time around, hotels and gastronomy remain shut. Athletes above age 14 are required to wear medical-grade FFP2 masks in closed spaces, including cable cars and ski lifts (available for purchase online, in pharmacies, or at the foot of the mountain). Additionally, closed spaces are capped at 50 percent occupancy, other than for individuals in the same household. In Lower Austria, parking spaces and ski lift tickets must be booked prior to arrival. So far – three weeks into the winter season – this safety protocol appears to be successful; No corona clusters have been traced to skiing, and Austria’s new COVID-19 cases have stabilized at 2,000 a day.
But despite this security concept, Austria’s decision has not been without consequences. In protest, Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder thwarted Germans’ holiday plans by imposing a mandated ten-day quarantine for anyone returning from a high-risk area, including alpine nations Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. According to the state government, “Tourist day trips or leisure activities abroad, such as skiing, are avoidable sources of risk.”
The de facto absence of international visitors, especially Germans, who accounted for half of last year’s overnight guests, is a hard blow to Austria’s tourism industry. After all, statistics show that the country is no longer the ski nation that it once was. Last winter, only seven percent of skiers were Austrians. A study conducted by the Viennese Institute for Recreation and Tourist Research found that about 20% fewer Austrians set foot on the slopes than 20 years ago. This started when the gratis ski week was no longer a fixture in the school program, beginning in the late 90s.
So when ski lifts resumed operation on Christmas Eve, expectations remained low overall. However, the ski resort Semmering, just a stone’s throw away from Vienna, expected a considerable number of lockdown-fatigued locals to show up for a day’s skiing. “We expected a good influx of skiers and winter sports enthusiasts from our catchment area,” said Josef Autischer, manager of the Semmering-Hirschenkogel Bergbahnen. “Especially considering that everyone is at home and cannot go on a ski vacation to neighboring states like Italy.”
And come they did. With only a single cabin lift and one ski lift, the Semmering is a relatively small resort whose slim offerings restricted to 12,000 skiers daily. And according to Autischer, ski passes have been sold out every day, from Christmas until last weekend, although without places to recharge on the mountain top, guests stayed only for a couple of hours. This strict quota allowed the lift operator to enforce social distancing measures, but also meant doubling their staff, whom they pay themselves. Semmering-Hirschenkogel Bergbahnen is not anticipating making any profit this season.
But while the number of skiers was limited, a flood of walkers and sledders arrived in the Lower Austrian town during the holidays, overwhelming the local police force. Packed parking lots led to illegally parked cars along the roads or in front of people’s private property, and guests reportedly “did not always abide” by social distancing rules despite repeated warning signals. The situation got so out of hand that the town was forced to close off all sledding slopes.
In contrast, the outlook for Austria’s ski tourism could not be more bleak, especially in the western part of the country. Winter sport epicenters Salzburg and Tyrol are recording a very small number of guests. For example, the popular resort Saalbach Hinterglemm in Salzburg told Metropole that it is estimating a 90% loss over last year. On top of that, the number of visitors has now started to decline with the end of the holiday season and the return to school and work, with some places receiving as few as 50 visitors a day. Due to the huge losses, several resorts in Salzburg and Tyrol announced that they would reduce capacity, only running ski lifts on weekends starting Jan. 11, and sent send employees into Kurzarbeit (short-term employment). However, ski lift providers must be careful. The federal government has warned that they would shut lifts for good if the large influx on weekends is not better controlled.
With the pandemic upending our lives in unprecedented ways, ski lift operators have promised to do their part. Despite the economic hardship, resorts will remain open as long as possible, permitting hobby athletes to cruise down the alpine slopes and enjoy the crisp mountain air.
“It’s very difficult, but we feel that we an obligation to our guests, who enjoy winter sports with us,” said Autischer.