Snow has been falling in the Alps and Rockies, prompting a flurry of excitement and social-media activity among skiers. In Tignes, France, where the lifts on the glacier have been open since October 17, 30cm of fresh snow fell on Tuesday, offering powder skiing and conditions, according to a spokesman, “more like the middle of winter than autumn”. In the US, Wolf Creek in Colorado became the first resort to open, turning on its lifts on Wednesday after 56cm of snow fell in a storm the previous weekend. Mount Norquay in Alberta opened last Saturday, the first resort in Canada to do so, and the earliest opening in its 95-year history.
But while the snow may be good, numerous questions remain over whether skiers will be able to access it. Resorts worldwide have made efforts to reassure clients that they plan to open as usual, with various coronavirus-safety measures in place. However, regional or national lockdowns could of course interfere, while border closures and quarantine rules threaten to severely restrict international visitors.
Last weekend’s opening of Cervinia, one of Italy’s biggest resorts, has proved a worrying example of what could go wrong. The resort’s lifts began running on Saturday for a season that should have continued until May. In fact it lasted just two days — on Sunday the Italian government issued an emergency decree closing ski resorts to everyone except professional racers until November 24. Images showing long queues outside the ticket office in Cervinia, as well as a crowded cable car, went viral on the Saturday, though it is not known if the pictures influenced the government’s decision. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some Italian resorts have remained open: Val Senales and Sulden am Ortler continue to operate thanks to being in the semi-autonomous South Tyrol region.
Following President Macron’s announcement on Wednesday night, Tignes’ glorious early season will be brought to an abrupt end. The lifts were due to run for a final time on Thursday, weather permitting, but will then remain closed until at least December; the same will be true for the glacier-skiing area at Les Deux Alpes. In fact, losing the autumn skiing season will be a marketing blow more than anything — participation is mainly limited to racers in training and a tiny number of devotees. The crucial question is whether French resorts will be able to reopen in time for Christmas.
Resorts around the world have been keen to stress that skiing itself is a low-risk activity, thanks to the fresh air and abundant space. Most have introduced similar protective measures to address the areas where social distancing is harder, requiring mask-wearing on lifts and in lift queues, installing abundant hand-sanitiser stations and severely restricting après-ski. Numerous season-opening concerts and parties have been cancelled and drinks will typically only be served to seated customers.
The big difference is on the question of limiting numbers. In general, Alpine resorts seem to be relying on a predicted fall in international visitors to avoid the need for a formal system of restricting lift pass sales, or for stipulating reduced capacity on cable cars and chairlifts. The French resort of Val d’Isère, for example, would ordinarily expect more than 40 per cent of skiers to be from the UK, a number that is likely to be significantly cut by current quarantine regulations.
In the US, by contrast, the majority of skiers are typically day-trippers from local cities, so capacity restrictions could be more necessary. Vail Resorts, for example, has announced it will operate a pre-booking system across all its 34 North American resorts, with pass sales halted once limits have been reached.
Vail, in line with many North American resorts, will also impose social distancing on its lifts: groups of friends or family can ride together but strangers will be separated by at least two unoccupied seats on a chairlift, or sat on opposite sides of a gondola. Jackson Hole in Wyoming is cutting the capacity of its celebrated “tram” cable car from 100 to 51, as well as capping the overall number of skiers per day.
Tour operators in the UK are reporting growing interest in late-season trips, for the Easter holidays and beyond, in the hope that the coronavirus situation might have improved. Possible beneficiaries include the French resort of Val Thorens, the highest in Europe, where the season is due to extend until May 9, and Riksgransen in arctic Sweden. The latter is so far north the season does not start until February 26 and the lifts are not scheduled to close until May 23.
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