To ski or not to ski? What to expect on the slopes this winter

Before we start, we need to address the elephant that’s still in the room, ignoring our pleas for it to leave: Covid.

There are a lot of people – including many who love skiing – who wouldn’t consider booking a snow holiday right now. However sad it makes them feel, they are making that calculation over concerns for their own and the wider public’s health, and because it seems rash to spend money on a holiday in the midst of a Covid-19 surge and an uncertain short-term future.

But there are also lots of people who don’t feel the same way. Ski travel operators report strong bookings from Ireland for the coming season, many made before the most recent surge or rolled over from last year. Some people may be rethinking those plans now, but many others will press ahead with their winter holiday.

Soon the whitest slopes in Europe will be filled with zig-zagging thrill seekers back in the great outdoors for the first time in two years.

Ireland’s snow lovers have, however, been warned to expect a ski season like no other as the hard lessons learned in the first wave of 2020 dramatically reshape how the ski resorts do their business.

People will have to wear surgical-standard masks when buying their passes and travelling in the gondolas, there will be a strict adherence to procedures

The banging tunes, boozing and table dancing of the apres ski is likely to be significantly dialled down this season, while the traditional ski masks of times past will be joined by the medical grade surgical masks of times present. The great outdoors across the Alps and the Pyrenees are also likely to be celebrated and explored like never before, as people steer clear of crowded indoor spaces.

Proof of vaccination will be the must-have item on the slopes pretty much everywhere.

Resorts across Europe have had a long time to prepare for this ski season. Most were inactive last year and put that downtime to good use; they know they have a lot to lose if they get things wrong.

Eoin Wright from Kilmainham, Dublin has first-hand experience of what happens when a resort gets things wrong.

He has been skiing since he was a child and when he boarded a Ryanair flight from Germany to Dublin on February 29th, 2020, after an exhilarating week on the slopes around the Austrian resort of Ischgl with five friends, he hadn’t a notion his ski adventures were about to come to a shuddering halt for at least two years. Nor did he have any idea that he and all his friends were coming home with Covid-19.

On the day Wright’s last ski holiday ended, Ireland reported its first case of Covid-19, and Ischgl was about to become the first super-spreader site of the pandemic in Europe.

He was hit hard by the virus but has fully recovered, has been vaccinated and holds no grudges against the resort. In fact he can’t wait to go back. “All six of us have booked for next March,” he says enthusiastically. “I have no qualms about it at all, particularly when you consider how strict Austria is now.”

He points out that everyone skiing will be vaccinated – a requirement in most resorts – and most of the holiday will be spent outdoors. “We also will have our own transport and will not be taking buses. We will scale back on the apres ski, but that was never really a big deal for us anyway and going to restaurants has the same risk there as it does here.

“Last time I think we were all blindsided and not much was known about Covid but it is all different now. I could just as easily get it here as there.”

For its part Ischgl has learned from the early days of the pandemic and toned down its early-season opening celebrations to reflect a calmer and more regulated approach this season.

Eoin Wright: ‘Going to restaurants has the same risk there as it does here’. Photograph Nick Bradshaw
Eoin Wright: ‘Going to restaurants has the same risk there as it does here’. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Out is the rock-and-roll approach to its Top of the Mountain opening concert in late November and in is the operatic-pop trio, Il Volo. “Regarding apres-ski we welcome the fact that the legislature has provided clarity and clear regulations to guarantee the best health and safety protection,” Alexander von der Thannen, chairman of the Paznaun-Ischgl Tourism Association said.

He described the plans for the concert as an “elegant winter opening” focusing on a “high-quality” experience. Calm and measured will be the watch words across Europe’s highest points this year.

Aileen Eglington runs a travel consultancy and specialises in skiing trips from Ireland. She is optimistic about the season ahead and suggests that people “are willing to go skiing again, and there is huge pent up demand out there”.

She says the popular ski resorts aren’t full yet but “they are certainly nearly full. There’s a lot of bookings from last year and even 2020 that have been rolled over”.

She accepts that in the early days of the pandemic some resorts “got things wrong” but reckons they have learned from their mistakes.

“I work for a lot of the Austrian resorts, and all of the right procedures have been put in place. For instance, people will have to wear surgical-standard masks when buying their passes and travelling in the gondolas, there will be a strict adherence to procedures and they will be doing everything they can to ensure that people are safe.”

She notes that the broader travel sector has “worked very well since it returned in the summertime. And I think people understand the safety measures that are in place”.

She goes on to say there will be “less apres ski and more of an emphasis on people going for night-time sleigh rides or toboggan runs. The focus will be more on outdoor activities, and there will be less of the boom boom boom that the Germans, the Dutch and the Irish love. That will definitely be toned down and the emphasis will be on staying safe”.

Eglington also suggests that there will be more self-catered holidays with “people looking to go with more reputable operators and hotels, where they will have confidence that everything has been cleaned to the right standard. A good four-star hotel offering half board is proving to be very popular this year”.

When it comes to prices she believes they are likely to climb this year although not by as much as people might think. “We have seen maybe a 5 per cent increase, and I don’t think you’ll see the same discounts for half term and the new year. There will also be fewer last-minute deals. The season is also likely to be extended. There are some resorts that are already open and a lot of resorts will extend well into March.

“I think people will have to be more organised and might need to book restaurants in advance. This season is all about feeling safe.”

Orla Markey of Crystal Ski agrees and says bookings are “looking very strong” for the season ahead. There is a note of relief in her voice.

“Not one flight left for a ski resort last year,” she says. “We gave our customers the option of refunds or to amend their bookings, and a lot of people rebooked for this season.”

She says at the lowest end of the price scale, a week’s skiing – including flights, accommodation and transfers, but not ski passes or equipment – can be had for as little as €329 but the prices climb to about €1,500 per person for a week over the new year period, covering half-board in a four-star hotel.

“The demand is definitely there but it will be different this year… I don’t think you will see people coming off the mountain at 4pm and hitting the bars.”

The resorts with good snow records and high altitude skiing such as Avoriaz, Arc 1950, Val d’Isere, Ischgl and Verbier are all reported to be attracting significant bookings for the weeks ahead.

“The question on everyone’s lips is: ‘how will coronavirus affect ski holidays this winter?’ The honest answer at the moment is that nobody can be truly sure, but we all have every intention of delivering ski holidays as usual,” says Gareth Crump at VIP Ski.

He says high season dates are filling up “and if you want a certain size chalet in a resort of choice it’s time to book. We are definitely seeing an increase in demand for them this year with the current increase in enquiries running at 20 per cent”.

He suggests that eating lunch on a terrace is “a joy in itself, and choosing chairlifts to navigate around the pistes, is the best way to be able to return to enjoy the skiing that we all love”.

He adds that there has been “a noticeable swing away from shared chalets. Many bookings are now for whole chalets where you don’t have to mix with others. As well, last-minute deals are much less likely this season, especially for catered chalet holidays. The number of chalet holidays available through tour operators has plummeted in the last few years”.

Across all the resorts in Europe, the rules will vary – just as they do from country to country – and much will depend on the trajectory of the pandemic in the weeks ahead, something which, as we know too well, remains uncertain.

Last season the Swiss resort of Verbier bucked the European trend and reopened to skiers. How it operated is a pointer for the season ahead. It deployed a team of “Covid angels” at ski lifts and pinch points to enforce Covid-19 rules.

The so-called angels in orange vests enforced mask wearing and social-distancing rules, particularly during two peak tourist periods – mid-December to early January, and mid-February to mid-March.

Covid angels are likely to feature elsewhere this year although they may not have the same gentle name.

As it stands Irish people can upload their Digital Covid Certificate on to the French Pass Sanitaire app to show proof of vaccination. It will be required for cafes, bars, restaurants, public transport and almost everywhere people gather. The certificates will be needed to buy masks and board lifts in Austria and Italy as well.

Masks, Plexiglas, contactless payment and social distancing will remain a feature everywhere.

Rules will vary for children, depending on their age. In Austria, unvaccinated over-12s must have proof of recovery or a negative test (no older than 24 hours for antigen, no more than 72 hours for PCR) to access enclosed lifts, accommodation, restaurants and bars.

Any families skiing for a week will need to make sure they are familiar with where to get tests locally in order for youngsters to be able to move freely around resorts. They should consider their choice of destination carefully – one ski expert suggests picking a smaller resort with more chairlifts and fewer gondolas.

Skiers are also advised to check thoroughly before they travel as to what proof and type of test is required in each destination or how to show their vaccination status

Holidaymakers should also book – where possible – through a fully-bonded tour operator if possible.

The pandemic is a long way from over and it could hit foreign travel as it has done in the past. People who book DIY trips may struggle to get refunds in the event of cancellations, while those who book with tour operators should find it easier to get a refund or arrange an alternative trip if a bonded operator is forced to cancel because it cannot run the holiday due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

There are also things to consider when taking out a travel insurance policy. Covid-19 cover will be key. Some policies offer to cover those who contract the virus abroad, while others cover cancellations due to testing positive before departure. But it is not guaranteed in all policies, and taking care to check the small print is more important than ever.

In fact taking care across the board – on the slopes and off them – will be more important this year than ever before.

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