Dreaming of a Schweiz Christmas?

25th November 2020, by Chris Gill

Verbier's Savoleyres sector just after dawn today

Verbier's Savoleyres sector just after dawn today

We’re getting a continuous drip-feed of news about skiing in Switzerland as more resorts – encouraged by early snowfalls – open at weekends and announce their plans for the season proper. Most recently, Verbier reminds us that Lac des Vaux, open since late October, should shortly be joined by the run from Attelas to Ruinettes. We wrote a couple of weeks back about the early opening of Davos.

You may be surprised to hear all this, given that skiing elsewhere in the Alps is basically shut down, at least for the moment. In his presentation yesterday evening of some lockdown easing, President Macron said that French resorts are unlikely to open before January, although further details are expected from the French Prime Minister later this week. Austria is currently in lockdown until 6 December, and all resorts are currently closed; it remains to be seen whether they will re-open after the national lockdown ends. We’ll come to Italy later.

France is of course the modern home of the catered chalet holiday business which, with Brexit looming, is facing challenges on multiple fronts. As we reported a week ago, the Hotelplan companies (Total, Inghams, Flexiski and Esprit) have folded their French chalet programmes for this season. Skiworld and Le Ski are still taking bookings (with appropriate assurances about refunds in various circumstances), as we believe is Ski Amis. All of these firms have info on their sites about what to expect.

Nick Morgan of Le Ski supports the cautious French approach, but is increasingly optimistic about the season ahead. ‘A huge proportion of loyal clients who lost their March holidays have just shifted them to the coming season,’ he told me yesterday, ‘and fresh bookings are now starting to come in again as people start to feel more positive about the season. We will await official clarification before we contact clients about their early January bookings.’

Some of these bookings are for space in shared chalets, but Le Ski is also blessed with quite a few small chalets aimed at single group bookings, which are obviously attractive in current circumstances. Obviously, Hotelplan’s withdrawal has done survivors like Le Ski no harm at all, and nor has the recent collapse of VIP. Nick also reports that scores of small one- and two-chalet operators have simply shut up shop.

The current situation in Italy is somewhat confused, but the direction of travel seems clear. The Italian government wants to see all its resorts closed until January at least, and is pressing other European governments to take similar action – not only its neighbours in the EU, but also Switzerland.

The worst affected area of Italy at present is the Valle d’Aosta in the north-west, which has a current weekly death rate four times the national average and a weekly infection rate about 60% above the national average.

Many of Italy’s best-known resorts are dotted along this valley. Among them is Monterosa, where small but perfectly formed UK operator Ski 2 specialises in holidays to Champoluc. Director Roger Walker tells us they are, very prudently, not taking bookings for holidays starting before 1 March.

Switzerland’s business-as-usual policy may seem even more surprising if you have been taking an interest in how Covid-19 infections are going outside the UK. The policy isn’t the result of better containment of the virus; far from it. In terms of weekly Covid deaths per million people, Switzerland is currently just below Italy and well above Austria and France, with almost twice the UK figure.

Weekly new infections, too, are well above the levels in France and the UK, and much on a par with Italy. (Austria’s new cases are appreciably higher.) And Switzerland’s test positivity rate is exceptionally high – about three times higher than the UK’s – which indicates that their case figures probably understate the real position.

To judge by what we’ve heard from our ever-helpful correspondent in Switzerland, Artur Pieniadz, the Swiss think they know what they are doing. In some respects the government’s approach resembles that of Sweden, giving priority to retention of something like normal life.

But the Italians are not alone in rejecting this approach, and wanting a blanket suspension of skiing across the Alps. For example, The Times quotes the Bavarian leader Markus Söder as pressing for a ban on Christmas ski holidays. The World Health Organisation’s David Nabarro has spoken critically about the Swiss position, expressing the fear that policies like this could drive a third wave of the virus before vaccination has had a chance to build up immunity.

It remains to be seen how all this will pan out. If resorts open for the new season and you are tempted by a trip over Christmas or earlier in December, remember the quarantine rules; Switzerland is not on the UK ‘travel corridor’ list. Read yesterday’s item focusing on this angle by web editor Abi Butcher.

Note Our data comes mainly from two excellent websites: Our World in Data and the Financial Times virus page.

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