The Covid pandemic has forced governments to make some impossible choices. Shutting down schools, for example, can help limit contagion but at an enormous cost to a generation of students in terms of lost education and future opportunities. You can understand why politicians try so hard to keep classrooms open. The decision over whether to reopen Europe’s ski slopes this season is, however, not such a dilemma.

Austria is alarmed at the cost of a winter skiing closure, which it estimates at 2 billion euros ($2.4 billion), while some Swiss resorts have already opened. Some regional governors from northern Italy would like to do similar. 

Despite such special pleading, governments really should just keep the resorts shut and compensate restaurant and hotel owners for their losses. Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, and France’s Emmanuel Macron are right to seek a Europe-wide shutdown of winter sports until January at least. The Swiss, of course, aren’t members of the EU so they can do what they like.

The case against going ahead with the ski season is straightforward. Countries are just about getting the second wave of the pandemic under control, as cases finally drop after the adoption of new restrictive measures. A number of vaccines have been found to be effective against the virus, but they won’t be distributed widely at least until the spring. Meanwhile, from France to Italy, many hospitals remain overwhelmed just before the start of the winter — when there’s usually most pressure because of the flu season.

Skiing itself isn’t a big potential Covid spreader. Whether cross-country or downhill, it’s not hard to enforce social distancing. The trouble comes when one queues for the lifts, heads from some apres ski or goes to a chalet for a bite. Several ski resorts were found to have contributed to spreading the virus across Europe during the pandemic’s first wave. One Austrian village, Ischgl, near St Anton, was linked to cases in 45 countries after partying skiers brought the virus home with them.

Keeping resorts open would be fine if Europe had shown itself capable of suppressing the circulation of the virus through comprehensive testing and the tracking down of people who’ve been in contact with the infected. This clearly hasn’t been the case. Most countries had generally relaxed summers, as restaurants, bars and even nightclubs reopened. But this all contributed to the autumn surge in infections. Why would a third wave — as we await the vaccines — be any different?

Of course, there will be a cost for this decision. Travel and tourism accounted for 3.9% of EU gross domestic product in 2018, and 5.1% of its total labor force. It was more than double that when the crossover with other sectors of the economy was taken into account. Winter tourism is only part of the total, but it’s heavily concentrated in a limited number of communities, including several remote areas. These towns will suffer if the ski season is delayed, or canceled.

Still, it should be relatively straightforward for governments to identify these regions and compensate them, much as is being done for other sectors that risk spreading the virus — such as bars, cinemas and shopping malls. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the discovery of effective vaccines should make politicians more relaxed about keeping lockdowns in place for now, seeing as we can all see the light at the end of the tunnel. The expense of this will only be temporary.

EU member states have an individual responsibility over how to manage such restrictions. But it would make sense for the bloc to coordinate this decision, to avoid one country free riding on the others. The added risk is that ski enthusiasts would flock to any area that remains open and then spread the virus across Europe again. This would be doubly unfair on those who keep their slopes shut.

Ski lovers must be prepared to skip a season. They’ll probably be able to return to the slopes at the end of 2021.

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