EU countries at odds over Christmas ski season amid Covid-19 pandemic

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BERLIN (AFP) – The ski season is a key part of the Christmas holidays in Europe, but with Covid-19 cases soaring, the idea of hitting the slopes is proving increasingly controversial this year.

Germany is seeking an EU-wide ban on ski tourism over Christmas to halt coronavirus transmissions, but many countries including neighbouring Austria have voiced strong opposition.

Here is a summary of where key players stand on the issue

Germany

Authorities in Bavaria, Germany’s ski region, have spoken out emphatically for a ban on holidays on the slopes.

Bavaria’s state premier Markus Soeder said current infection rates meant “we just can’t have the classic ski holidays”.

He has also warned Germans against simply crossing the border to hit the slopes in Austria, as they would face a 10-day quarantine upon return – even for day-trips – since the neighbouring country is classed as a coronavirus risk zone.

Italy

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte earlier this week mooted the idea of coordinating with France and Germany for a “common European protocol” to halt ski tourism.

He told the talk show Otto e Mezzo: “It’s not possible to allow holidays on the snow, we can’t afford it.” No further details have so far emerged, and Conte would also have to negotiate with Italy’s powerful regional authorities before any ban could be implemented.

Ski resort operators are bitterly opposed, with some warning that following Germany’s call would mean killing off their entire season.

France

French winter sport resorts are free to open over the Christmas vacation, Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday, but ski lifts will have to remain shut.

Castex said mountain holidays were still on the cards but downhill skiing was effectively ruled out.

“Naturally, everybody is free to travel to resorts to enjoy the clean air of our beautiful mountains, and the shops which will be open, although bars and restaurants won’t be,” Castex told a news conference.

“But all ski lifts and collective infrastructures will be closed to the public,” he said.

Cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoe hikes are among snow activities that do not usually require mechanical lifts.

Austria

Vienna has voiced opposition to signing up to a ski holidays ban.

Calling ski tourism “part of our national identity”, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said that such winter holidays will go on.

What would be ruled out are apres-ski parties. Strict distancing rules will also be ordered to lower transmission risks, officials said.

Tourists must keep at least one metre apart at all times, wear masks in cable cars and gondolas, and bars and restaurants will serve drink and food to seated customers only.

Spain

Spain has so far been counting on opening its ski stations, but conditions are yet to be defined between regional authorities and the federal government.

In the Pyrenees, the Catalonia region wants to open its resorts from December 21, the date when curbs preventing people from entering or leaving regions are due to be lifted.

But some ski operators are hoping for an even earlier start.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria has no plans to cancel ski holidays in the country, with all three major resorts – Bansko, Pamporovo and Borovets – to open in December.

“There is no reason to cancel the ski season. It’s not the sport but the apres-ski parties that sparked the spread of Covid-19 in Europe,” said Ivan Obreikov, spokesman for Ulen, a company operating ski lifts and gondolas in Bansko.

Restaurants across the country are shut at the moment up to December 21. But hotels and holiday homes are open for business.

Slovenia

A decision on whether to open the stations over Christmas on Slovenia’s Julian Alps are pending.

An ongoing ban on public transport at the moment applies to cable cars.

Nevertheless, most ski resorts have begun preparing their courses with artificial snow in the hopes that by December, they’d get the go ahead to let tourists in.

Switzerland

In non-EU Switzerland, which has been hard-hit by the second wave of Covid-19, the authorities, ski and tourism sectors have stood united behind the decision to keep the winter season going.

“In Switzerland, we can go skiing, with protection plans in place,” Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset told reporters Thursday.

He added, though, that the government would re-examine the situation before the Christmas holidays.

For now, Bern is opting to trust people to respect the protection measures put in place by chairlift operators and ski schools, including facemask requirements everywhere except on the slopes.

European Commission

Brussels has suggested it will leave the decision to individual governments.

“The first thing to know is that the decision whether or not to allow skiing is, of course, a national competence. This is not European competence,” said commission spokesman Stefan de Keersmaecker.

“Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gradual and science-based and effective lifting of the containment measures.”

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