Ski resorts are counting on the Helvetic love of the outdoors, with lift associations launching a campaign urging the Swiss to "hit the slopes"

Verbier (Switzerland) (AFP) - The coronavirus crisis shuttered Switzerland’s ski resorts in the spring, but they are banking on tighter precautions and the Swiss love of the mountains to save them as the winter season kicks off.

A cable car ride to the top of the slopes at Verbier, where staff wear plastic face shields, reveals the extent to which the pandemic has impacted even the furthest reaches of the pristine Alps.

“Wearing face masks is mandatory everywhere except on the slopes, in order to enjoy the great outdoors,” Didier Defago, the 2010 Olympic downhill champion now president of the Wallis ski lift association, told AFP.

Wearing face masks is mandatory just about everywhere except on the slopes

With skiing already going downhill in recent years owing to less interest and less predictable snowfall, the closure of the slopes in March during the first wave of the pandemic left the resorts fearing the worst.

But the industry has been able to adapt and has avoided another closure, even as Switzerland deals with one of the worst outbreaks in Europe.

The restaurants may be shut, but recreational skiers from the Wallis region are flocking to the slopes as the season gets underway.

“Covid is a drag,” acknowledges 40-year-old Ludovic Guigoz, wearing a tube scarf with an inbuilt virus filter.

The resorts and ski lift operators insist everything is being done to ensure safety during the pandemic

“But coming to ski in the morning, it’s fine. I feel safe,” he said, before setting off down the piste with his family.

The resorts and ski lift operators insist everything is being done to ensure safety.

“The cable car windows are open all day long. Ventilation, masks, hand gel, distancing,” said Laurent Vaucher, the chief executive of Televerbier, the top ski lift firm in French-speaking parts of Switzerland.

At Verbier, like at other resorts, police patrol the lift departure area to make sure everyone is respecting the anti-Covid measures.

- Glimmer of hope -

At the end of October, the Swiss Ski Lift Association tightened measures against the virus, making it mandatory to wear a facemask not only in closed cable car cabins, but also on open-air chair lifts and in queues.

The resorts are also counting on the Helvetic love of the outdoors, with lift associations launching a campaign urging the Swiss to “hit the slopes”.

“This is where we have a trump card to play,” said Vaucher, who has given up on US and Asian visitors this year, but hopes his compatriots will head for the mountains in greater numbers.

Recreational skiers are flocking to the slopes as the season gets underway in Switzerland

Gregory Quin, a sports historian at the University of Lausanne, said the medium-altitude resorts could do especially well with the Swiss this year “because people rely on proximity”.

There is also a glimmer of hope that European tourists could still flock to Switzerland to ski over Christmas after Bern recently lifted quarantine requirements for people arriving from most of the continent.

But it remains to be seen whether anything like the usual numbers will do so, considering the difficulties to travel from a range of countries currently under some form of lockdown.

Even if the number of skiers remains high, resorts will largely have to do without income from apres-ski activities and ski schools, which have been banned in several cantons.

That will be tough, given that ski schools and camps can account for up to a third of a station’s revenues, Quin said.

- Verbier versus Bali -

For now, skiers appear to be heeding the call to support Swiss stations.

The Swiss Ski Lift Association has made it mandatory to wear a facemask not only in closed cable car cabins, but also on open-air chair lifts and in queues

By the end of October, 110,000 people had already signed up for the 749-Swiss franc ($820, 695-euro) Magic Pass, an annual unlimited ski lift access at 30 resorts.

The scheme was launched three years ago to try to combat the continuing decline in the number of skiers.

“The baby-boomers were keen on skiing, and there were lots of them,” Laurent Vanat, author of an annual report on the world skiing market, told AFP.

But, he said, “the subsequent generations have been smaller (in number), and partly descended from immigrants, and therefore without ski culture.”

“That means that the younger generations generated fewer skiers – but that doesn’t mean they don’t ski.”

Quin, meanwhile, said skiing had taken a hit from the emergence of low-cost air travel and diversification of tourism.

Ski resorts are also battling a continuing decline in the number of skiers that started years before the pandemic

Skiing “is very expensive and has to compete against alternative activities”, he pointed out, but noted that the pandemic could help shift the dynamic.

“The Swiss might learn to prefer going to Verbier over Bali.”