It is a view that is as perfect as the mountain world usually only shows in the glossy brochures of tourist experts: the sky spans Germany’s highest peak in a radiant blue and almost cloud-free manner. The view extends around 150 kilometers from the Zugspitze on this Thursday morning to the Großglockner in, the Marmolada in South Tyrol or the Piz Bernina in the. Here, where in the past few years at the beginning of the season only narrow bands of snow allowed the first turns between the rocks, these days perfect skiing conditions prevail.
At least in theory. Because practically it is downright eerily quiet on the Zugspitze at the moment. The start of the season on the glacier, actually planned for November 13th, has been postponed indefinitely. “Everything is set up, we could open immediately,” says Verena Altenhofen, spokeswoman for the Bavarian Zugspitzbahn in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which operates the ski area. “But in view of the corona situation, we currently do not know when or whether we will even be able to start this winter.”
Tourism officials and cable car operators have had a red alert since this week. First, Italy’s Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte called for ski areas in the Alpine region to be closed until at least January 10, in order to finally stop the spread of the corona virus. Then Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder had seconded that this type of tourism “counteracts all efforts of the population” to fight the corona virus. In the meantime, Söder has even announced a quarantine requirement for day-trippers in the Austrian ski areas.
France wants to open the ski resorts during the Christmas holidays, but keep the ski lifts closed, Prime Minister Jean Castex said in a press conference. Restaurants and bars in the ski areas will also be closed until at least January 20th. “We will try to vote in Europe whether we can close all ski areas,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Should the position prevail, it would be the worst case scenario for the tourism industry in the Alpine region. Almost 50 million winter vacationers flock to the European mountains every year. Almost a third of the statistically recorded skier days – calculated from the number of guests times the season’s days – are allocated to Austria and France, almost a sixth each to Italy and Switzerland, the rest to Germany and the other Alpine countries. With a turnover of around 13.3 billion euros per season, winter tourism is the region’s largest source of income.
Accordingly, those responsible for tourism in the ski areas are currently following the development of the number of infected people as well as the decisions made by politics. “The whole of Europe is flying on sight these days – and we, as vacation spots, are just passengers,” says Martin Ebster, Tourism Director in St. Anton am Arlberg. After the stricter corona protective measures imposed by the Austrian government, St. Anton recently postponed the start of the season originally planned for the beginning of December by almost three weeks to December 17th. “We have to see if that’s enough,” says Ebster.
From the perspective of the lift operator, the political measures are overshooting the target. An infection-proof ski operation, they assure, would be feasible without any problems. “With medical support, we have developed hygiene and safety concepts that have already proven themselves during the summer season and that we have expanded for the winter,” says the Tyrolean tourism manager Ebster. Like many other places, St. Anton was also the destination of numerous additional mountain vacationers in summer, who instead of flying south, flocked to the Alpine region.
Mask compulsory also in the T-bar lift
In order to rule out corona cases in winter too, the local mountain railways want to enforce strict distance rules, among other things. A minimum distance of one meter, plus a mask requirement, does not only apply to cash registers and waiting areas on the Arlberg, but also to gondola, chair and even T-bar rides. In relation to the chairlifts, this means up to a third of the capacity, with the usual two-person tow lifts only single journeys would be possible. And in order to avoid risky crowds at the valley stations, the mountain railways have hired additional security staff.
The piste outfitter Demaclenko, who belongs to the South Tyrolean cable car company Leitner, has even retrofitted snow cannons so that the huge atomizers can spray disinfectants instead of water. The machines should also be able to be used to chemically clean gondolas or entry areas. The designers found out that this works in the summer. But there is still no known cable car operator who has repositioned their snow cannons accordingly and set them up in the stations.
Instead, mobile wiping commands should continuously disinfect waiting areas, armchairs and gondolas, for example, announce the cable car operators on the Arlberg. It sounds similar in Chamonix in France, in Grindelwald in Switzerland, at the foot of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, or in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria.
Everywhere, additional ticket booths are supposed to equalize potential visitor flows, and given walking routes are supposed to prevent overzealous snow fans from getting too close to each other, report the local tourism experts and cable car operators. At the Zugspitzbahn, those responsible also want to continue the regulation from the summer, when they reduced the number of passengers in the gondola lifts by at least a third. Locked weather protection hoods on chairlifts are also intended to prevent dangerous aerosol concentrations from building up under the plexiglass domes.
Just no traffic jams at the valley stations
In order to avoid overcrowded ski buses, mountain railways and municipalities around Garmisch and Zugspitze want to circulate additional buses and to condense the timetables. And instead of the magic of a hut on the mountain, most restaurants should have drastically reduced number of seats, but take away food. A regulation that many other ski resorts in the Alpine region have already announced. A mountain railway manager in Austria says that neither a guest nor an innkeeper can be found when bars and restaurants in the valley have to close, but people on the mountain are allowed to cluster in overcrowded huts.
Images of tightly packed winter sports enthusiasts at the valley stations, for example on the Hintertux Glacier in Tyrol or in Zermatt in Switzerland, which alarmed health politicians and epidemiologists in the early phase of this winter and frightened cautious ski fans, should not be repeated if possible. “If there is anything that we don’t need at all,” says the tourism manager of a French ski region, “then there are idiots who jeopardize both the health of the other guests and the economic survival of entire tourist regions”.
Especially since tens of thousands of seasonal workers join the local employees. This ranges from cleaning aids in hotels to operating staff at tow and chair lifts. In addition, there are thousands of freelance ski instructors who strengthened the local instructors during the high and low season. “We are currently still hiring people,” says an Austrian cable car manager, “because we are simply dependent on the people in regular operations”. At the moment he still hopes to be able to start, “a little later than usual, of course, but at least at all”.
At least in Switzerland, that still seems possible at the moment. “The ski areas can remain open, but with strict protection concepts,” said the Swiss Interior Minister, Federal Councilor Alain Berset, on Thursday. In Zermatt, for example, the first slopes in the shadow of the Matterhorn are already open. The rest is to follow and will – where necessary – already be covered with snow. The local tourism association has also had its own tube scarf developed, which at least reaches the level of simple protective masks in terms of virus protection. And in Grindelwald, too, the mountain railways are counting on a regular start of the season on the first weekend in December – “of course, subject to significantly higher hygiene requirements,” assures Kathrin Naegeli, spokeswoman for the local Jungfrau Railways.
Whether that will work is currently completely open. In any case, it is clear to everyone involved that the coming winter will be radically different. And also that it will bring a drastic slump compared to the peak values for guest and overnight stays in recent years. The head of marketing at a large Swiss ski resort sums it up: “If, despite Corona, we have ‘only’ 30 to 50 percent fewer guests this winter, we would probably get away with it with a black eye.”