Skiers on a chair lift at Pitztal, Austria in 2019. The ski sector contributes 4% to the country’s GDP
Skiers on a chair lift at Pitztal, Austria, in 2019. The ski sector contributes 4% to the country’s GDP © Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty

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German chancellor Angela Merkel has called on the EU to close all ski resorts over Christmas and New Year in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, putting her on a collision course with Austria.

In a statement to the Bundestag, Ms Merkel appealed to people to avoid all tourist travel. “The skiing season is approaching, [and] we will push for a vote in Europe to close all ski resorts,” she told MPs.

She acknowledged, however, that an EU-wide ban would be difficult to achieve because Austria, whose winter sports industry is a key pillar of the economy, was opposed to the idea. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday it was “not a matter in which the EU should interfere”.

The European Commission stressed that the decision on whether or not to allow skiing was matter for national governments, not Brussels. “This is not a European competence,” it said.

It urged EU member states to work together and warned that lifting social restrictions too early could “increase the risk of resurgence of the virus”.

The skiing row is the latest example of tensions that have plagued the EU during the pandemic, as member states have unilaterally imposed policies such as border closures and bans on exports of health products.

There is clear disunity in the ranks of Alpine countries. In Italy, which recorded 853 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday — the highest level since March — prime minister Giuseppe Conte wants to see all ski facilities closed until January 10. “We can’t afford it,” he said.

Meanwhile Jean Castex, the French prime minister, said ski resorts in France would remain open at Christmas but ski lifts would be closed.

German officials have pointed to the example of Ischgl, the Austrian ski resort which became one of the most notorious corona hotspots during the first wave of the pandemic. Tourists from Israel to Singapore were infected with coronavirus while skiing there, and then unknowingly brought it back to their home countries.

Markus Söder, the powerful prime minister of Bavaria, has pleaded for a unified approach. “We say that if we’re shutting down ski resorts and tourism in Germany, then we should be getting Austria to do the same,” he told Bild Zeitung.

The Austrian authorities, however, have rejected Germany’s misgivings. “Winter holidays in Austria will be safe,” Elisabeth Köstinger, the country’s tourism minister, said on Wednesday. Officials say bars and entertainment will be strictly curbed and social-distancing measures enforced on ski lifts.

The ski sector contributes 4 per cent to Austria’s gross domestic product and accounts for almost 8 per cent of employment in the country over the winter months, said Carsten Brzeski, economist at ING. “Something like 25 per cent of all touristic accommodation can be related to the winter ski season [in Austria],” he said.

Even in Italy, opinion is split. While Mr Conte has come out in favour of a ban, Luca Zaia, president of the northern Italian region of Veneto, wants ski resorts to remain open, saying measures had been taken to ensure a “safe start to the skiing season”. Christmas and New Year without skiing would be “economic suicide” for winter sports centres like Cortina d’Ampezzo, he said.

Italy’s ski resorts earn annual revenues of about €11bn, a third of which comes from the period between Christmas and New Year, when many Italians holiday in the Alps and the Dolomites.

In Switzerland, meanwhile, many of the country’s largest ski areas are already opening.

Testing is being carried out on a cableway in the Swiss ski resort of Grindelwald. It is due to start operating next week © REUTERS

While restrictions apply in some of the western, French-speaking cantons hardest hit by the new outbreak of infections, in others, such as Graubünden in the east, resorts are gearing up for business as usual.

Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, would not be affected by a bloc-wide ban.

Markus Häsler, the chief executive of Zermatt’s ski lift and railway operator, said Italian and German calls to close resorts were nothing but “hot air”. Switzerland, he said, “will never ever go along”.

But nervousness about the prospect of EU governments forbidding its citizens from skiing in the Alps is growing. The Luzerner Zeitung, a Swiss newspaper, warned its readers on Thursday to prepare for a “ski war” with Europe.

Additional reporting by Martin Arnold in Frankfurt and Michael Peel in Brussels

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Austria should learn lessons of last ski season / From Timothy Spence, Vienna, Austria

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