The coronavirus crisis shuttered Switzerland’s ski resorts in the spring, but they are banking on tighter precautions and the Swiss love of the mountains to save them as the winter season kicks off.
A cable car ride to the top of the slopes at Verbier, where staff wear plastic face shields, reveals the extent to which the pandemic has impacted even the furthest reaches of the pristine Alps.
“Wearing face masks is mandatory everywhere except on the slopes, in order to enjoy the great outdoors,” Didier Defago, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion now president of the Wallis ski lift association, told AFP.
With skiing already going downhill in recent years owing to less interest and less predictable snowfall, the closure of the slopes in March during the first wave of the pandemic left the resorts fearing the worst.
But the industry has been able to adapt and has avoided another closure, even as Switzerland deals with one of the worst outbreaks in Europe.
The restaurants may be shut, but recreational skiers from the Wallis region are flocking to the slopes as the season gets underway.
“Covid is a drag,” acknowledges 40-year-old Ludovic Guigoz, wearing a tube scarf with an inbuilt virus filter.
“But coming to ski in the morning, it’s fine. I feel safe,” he said, before setting off down the piste with his family.
The resorts and ski lift operators insist everything is being done to ensure safety.
“The cable car windows are open all day long. Ventilation, masks, hand gel, distancing,” said Laurent Vaucher, the CEO of Televerbier, the top ski lift firm in French-speaking parts of Switzerland.
At Verbier, like at other resorts, police patrol the lift departure area to make sure everyone is respecting the anti-Covid measures.
Verbier versus Bali
For now, skiers appear to be heeding the call to support Swiss stations.
By the end of October, 110,000 people had already signed up for the 749 Swiss franc ($820) Magic Pass, an annual unlimited ski lift access at 30 resorts.
The scheme was launched three years ago to try to combat the continuing decline in the number of skiers.
“The baby-boomers were keen on skiing, and there were lots of them,” Laurent Vanat, author of an annual report on the world skiing market, told AFP.
But, he said: “The subsequent generations have been smaller [in number], and partly descended from immigrants, and therefore without ski culture.
“That means that the younger generations generated fewer skiers – but that doesn’t mean they don’t ski.”
Gregory Quin, a sports historian at the University of Lausanne, said skiing had taken a hit from the emergence of low-cost air travel and diversification of tourism.
Skiing “is very expensive and has to compete against alternative activities”, he pointed out, but noted that the pandemic could help shift the dynamic.
“The Swiss might learn to prefer going to Verbier over Bali.”