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The Italian ski resort of Cervinia, which lies below the Matterhorn, was forced to shut a day after opening last month as pictures of hundreds of queuing skiers ignoring social-distancing went viral.

Since that setback, the barely underway Alpine ski season has been further thrown into turmoil by lockdown measures rippling across the continent, shutting slopes in France and Italy and keeping most would-be visitors to the region at home until at least December.

The pandemic has left the lift companies, hotels, bars and instructors that make up the $33 billion Alpine ski business, which employs hundreds of thousands across the region, bracing for a potentially disastrous winter. Resorts are trying to attract more locals this season, but that won’t make up for the loss of international visitors due to quarantines and lockdowns, according to Laurent Vanat, a ski industry consultant based in Geneva.

“The best outlook would be for the infection rate to decline by Christmas, so we can get on with the season,” said Vanat.

If national lockdowns end as planned next month, then the damage might be manageable as the season only normally enters full swing then. But the industry will still be on edge due to superspreader outbreaks that ripped through the resorts of Ischgl and Verbier earlier this year, underlining the risks inherent from crowded lifts and apres-ski bars.

On the other side of the mountain from Cervinia, skiers are still carving turns on the glacier above the Swiss resort of Zermatt, but bookings are down. During the summer, overnight stays fell by 40% to 50% from the same period a year earlier, even as the stylish village became the No. 1 holiday destination for Swiss tourists.

Quarantine challenge

While North American resorts will use reservations to limit lift capacity this winter, most gondolas and telecabines across the Alps still plan to operate as normal when they open. As with other forms of public transport, mask-wearing will be mandatory.

It’s too early to say whether the basic precautions planned by Alpine ski resorts will have to be tightened as the season unfolds, said Didier Trono, a professor of virology and genetics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

“It’s not as if we have to lock ourselves away from the snow, but we may have to do it in a way that’s different from before,” said Trono. “If you are skiing alone, then you can do it, but if you’re packed into a telecabine then it becomes more complicated.”

Skiing offers fresh air and an escape from the restrictions elsewhere, while the cable car rides only take a few minutes, said Laurent Vaucher, chief executive officer of Televerbier, the lift company operating in the storied Swiss resort.

Swiss way

“They tried to limit capacity in Italy last season, but people piled up in the ski station, which is even worse,” said Vaucher.

Verbier — a magnet for off-piste skiers and well-heeled party-goers — attracted 4,000 visitors on the opening weekend, about the same as in 2019. Vaucher says Televerbier is working off three possible scenarios: a best-case where the resort attracts 80% of its usual visitors, a mid-case with 50%, and a worst-case of zero, should there be a lockdown in Switzerland itself.

Skiers queue for the chairlift on the opening day of the Verbier ski area in the Swiss Alps on Oct. 30. | KEYSTONE / VIA AP
Skiers queue for the chairlift on the opening day of the Verbier ski area in the Swiss Alps on Oct. 30. | KEYSTONE / VIA AP

The Alpine nation has so far declined to take measures as strict as its neighbors despite a high infection rate.

Conscious of the “insane” queuing in Cervinia, Televerbier officials were quick to enforce rules on social-distancing on the opening day, said Vaucher, who had to ask some teenagers to put their masks back on when taking a chairlift on Saturday. With authorities keen to avoid another superspreader event, the apres-ski will look more like a “tea room,” but much will depend on the behavior of customers, he said.

Die-hard skiers

Further south in the French Alps, the world’s largest connected ski domain, which includes the chic resorts of Courchevel and Meribel, is hoping that French and Belgian skiers can offset the shortfall in British tourists. England entered a four-week lockdown on Nov. 5.

“It may not replace all the British, Russians and Americans but it’ll help,” said Olivier Desaulty, director of the Association Les Trois Vallees. He’s encouraged by a surge in last-minute arrivals by French holidaymakers over the summer.

Phil Smith, whose Snoworks runs off-piste courses for a mainly British clientele, is looking at other ways to beat the virus after the lockdowns forced him to cancel courses in Italy and the French resort of Tignes. That includes holding classes in Scotland and potentially moving his base from France to Sweden to circumvent quarantines.

“Die-hard skiers will always find a way, but the mass market might struggle,” said Smith, adding that apres-ski will have to change. “It won’t be 1,000 people jumping up and down in a small bar, but people will still have an amazing time. Everybody wants to keep on living.”

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