Ski season in Europe: Optimism despite omicron | DW Travel | DW | 24.01.2022

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Ski season in Europe: Optimism despite omicron

Despite the omicron variant, Europe's ski resorts are fairly busy. Austria is seeing a disappointing season, but in Switzerland visitor numbers are exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

Lifts at a standstill, empty mountain chalets and hotels — this is what the ski season looked like in large parts of Europe last year. Some ski resorts in Austria and Germany, for example, didn't open for a single day — a disaster for the tourism industry. This year, however, cable car companies and hoteliers were able to breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the rapid spread of the omicron variant, skiing was and is permitted everywhere, albeit under strict conditions.

"Above all we are very happy that the lifts are open again after the 2020/2021 winter lockdown," Carolin Kunzmann of the Bayerische Zugspitzbahn told DW. However, she also said that visitor numbers have remained lower than before the pandemic. In the areas around Germany's highest mountain, as in many ski areas in the country, the so-called 2G rule applies. "2G" stands for "geimpft oder genesen" — vaccinated or recovered. "Every guest is checked at the base station or at the ticket office," Kunzmann said. "Only after proof of vaccination or recovery has been presented will their ski pass be activated." Although this has led to longer waiting times, especially in the high season during the Christmas vacations, the approach has generally worked well. In addition, FFP2 masks are still mandatory in indoor areas, queuing areas, cable cars and ski lifts.

An employee wearing a mask hanging up a poster listing the COVID restrictions and rules at the cable car station of the Zugspitzbahn, Germany.

In many places only those who are fully vaccinated or recovered are allowed to ski

Austria: A muted start and plenty of après-ski anger

Austria also has strict rules for winter sports enthusiasts. The 2G rule and FFP2 masks are also standard practice here. The country was in lockdown until mid-December, due to soaring infection numbers. The Robert Koch Institute declared Austria a high-risk area, and the German Foreign Ministry accordingly issued a travel warning. Many guests, especially from Germany, were understandably put off. 26% fewer holidaymakers than before the pandemic arrived from the neighboring country, according to estimates by the Austrian hoteliers' association ÖHV. But still, the clear majority of tourists visiting Austria are from Germany. In January, the occupancy rate of Austrian hotels was around one third, which, according to the ÖHV, is "too little to operate economically."

"Of course, there are still a few vacancies this season," confirms Beate Kassner, Managing Director of Zillertal Tourism. Nevertheless, she says, they are pleased with the booking situation. In the Alpine region, the hope is that business will pick up in February — even though Austria has once again been declared a high-risk area. This has an impact especially on families with children who are unvaccinated. When they return to Germany, they will have to go into quarantine.

This is probably why many Germans are sticking to the slopes at home this winter. In fact, according to the Bavarian Zugspitzbahn, many Germans who planned to travel to Austria have changed their plans and booked holidays in German ski resorts near the border. Yet a skiing vacation in Austria for those who are completely vaccinated remains possible, without major restrictions.

Watch video 01:49

Slow start to Ischgl's ski season

Although there is a curfew starting at 10 p.m., in some places tourists are still indulging in après-ski partying — illegally, because strict COVID regulations apply to the hospitality industry — and amid heavy criticism, since excessive parties of this kind in Ischgl  contributed to the spread of the coronavirus in Europe two years ago, at the start of the pandemic. On social media, Austrian entrepreneur Florian Gschwandtner was attacked for a video showing him partying in Kitzbühel. Gschwandtner apologized and deleted the original video from his Instagram profile. However, it continues to circulate on other social media, including on Twitter. As one person tweeted: "How stupid can you be 1. to post this on Instagram and 2. to party like this in the middle of the biggest infection wave of the pandemic!? Après ski will be the downfall of us all … #covid19_at

Switzerland: Satisfactory booking figures 

In contrast, the start of the season has been better in Switzerland, which is also deemed a high-risk area. "The booking figures were and are extremely satisfactory, significantly higher than last year; we are recording even better figures than in 2019, before the COVID pandemic," said Sabrina Marcolin of Zermatt Tourism. International guests from France, the United Kingdom, Germany and even the United States also visited the resort at the foot of the Matterhorn over Christmas and New Year, she added. Jungfrau Railways in the Swiss ski resort around Grindelwald and Wengen even called it the best start to the winter season in ten years.

A cable car suspended in front of the Matterhorn peak in winter, Switzerland.

The unmistakable Matterhorn — Zermatt has recorded more winter holidaymakers than before the pandemic

This could also be because of the less stringent coronavirus regulations in Switzerland. The 2G rule only applies to the hospitality industry, not to skiing itself, unlike in neighboring Italy, France, Austria and Germany. The Swiss Federal Council rejected a move to tighten the measures in mid-January. In addition, the previously applicable entry COVID-19 test requirement for vaccinated and recovered was suspended. However, Switzerland also has a mandatory mask requirement indoors and in cable cars.

Three skiers on their way down a piste in the ski resort of Verbier

Masks are a constant companion — even when skiing

Optimism despite the omicron wave

Even though the ski season has gotten off to a good start in many places, uncertainty remains. The omicron variant continues to generate record infection rates in Europe. In Zermatt, people remain optimistic and confident despite the uncertainty in planning. In the past two years, they have learned to react quickly to changes and to implement appropriate measures.

The Bavarian Zugspitzbahn's assessment is somewhat more restrained. They are taking it one step at a time.

This article was originally written in German.