France has got great snow but will the skiers come?
What will the upcoming ski season look like in France with coronavirus and travel limitations circling?
Coronavirus and its travel limitations, the UK’s obligatory quarantine on returning holidaymakers, France’s voluntary reciprocal arrangements for UK visitors – and even Brexit – are all set to make this ski season challenging.
"It will be an ‘atypical’ winter”
Jean-Marc Silva, director of France Montagnes, an association of French mountain tourism businesses, said: “There is a lot of uncertainty and it will be an ‘atypical’ winter.”
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal stressed in late October that the ski season will go ahead, saying “at this stage the idea of closing the ski resorts is not on the table”.
Ski-related tourism is big business in France, with an overall annual turnover of around €11billion.
Health measures announced include the obligatory wearing of masks while queuing for and on ski lifts and during gatherings at the start and end of ski classes (children under 11 exempt). The mask can be taken off while on the slopes. Hired equipment will be thoroughly cleaned, and masks are needed in bars and restaurants – all of which will be limited to table service – when not seated.
International client bookings are currently down 28%
Mr Silva said bookings from international clients are currently down 28% this year, around 9% of them British. Last year, 612,000 British skiers travelled to France, making it the UK’s number one ski destination and a size- able market for French ski stations, but will quarantine measures change this?
“We are seeing a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude with our British and Irish friends, as there is the problem of access between the countries, the problem of airlines and Brexit,” Mr Silva said. He said he was holding out for late bookings, giving the example of the successful summer ski season in France.
“Traditional ‘last-minute’ bookings are going to be ‘last-second’ bookings,” he said. “This summer, we were at zero reservations at the beginning of June – in two months, we had our best summer ski season, with visitor numbers up 5%.”
Domestic ski tourism might help raise numbers
He hopes that domestic ski tourism will help make up for the drop in international visitors, saying “the French and Belgian markets are starting to move, still a little down, but they are moving”.
Robert Dixon, marketing manager for Ski World, said that on the other side of the Channel, the combination of Covid- 19 and Brexit has been “catastrophic” for much of the British ski tourism industry serving France.
Mr Dixon called on the UK government to help the industry and allow people to travel more easily, despite the pandemic. “We are cutting our catered chalet programme by about 40% and expect that will probably match booking numbers,” he told The Connexion. However, he was also hopeful that people would be looking for a healthy holiday break.
“Most people have had no real holidays and this ski season could be the first time people can get a proper break and enjoy a healthy holiday in the mountains with friends and family.”
"It just depends if skiers can travel"
Earl Knudsen, owner of UK-based ski holiday specialists Alpine Answers, also told of staff reductions. “We’ve had to cut back on staff ... reduce the size of the company by 60%,” he said.
“This time of year, we would probably get around 70 inquiries a week. Right now, we’re getting eight.”
A spokeswoman for another firm, Ski France, said: “Coronavirus is having an effect but we have bookings in place, it just depends if the skiers can travel. The British travel industry is having a tough time. The ski season could still happen if the [UK] government sorts out the quarantine situation.”
As for Brexit and British ski workers, industry professionals predict the biggest change will be a move away from catered chalets to self-catered chalets.
Mr Dixon said: “We planned for Brexit. Over the past three years, we increased our self-catering apartments and cut back on catered chalets.
“There is a shortage of labour in the main ski resorts of France and we have tended to recruit UK staff to work for us. It is still unclear what the rules will be for this from January 1, so we are recruiting more EU citizens for 2021.
“There are plenty of British applicants for our roles but we are in the dark about whether and how we can actually employ them next year.
“This is obviously making planning for ski companies difficult and will potentially leave many young people unemployed in the UK this winter.”
Jessica Kennedy (name changed on request), 28, from Ireland, is planning to work a season in France this winter, but coronavirus and Brexit have left her in uncertain territory.
“I had an interview with a British company. They want someone fluent in French so they can tap into that market in case the UK quarantine measures are still in place for British tourists. I get the vibe that every company is scared of committing to contracts in case it all goes to pot,” she said.
“This quantity of snow has been [...] remarkable”
One positive for France’s ski season is the weather. Guillaume Woznica, a fore- caster at news channel LCI, said in September: “This quantity of snow has been seen in the past in September, but it is still [rare enough to be] remarkable.”
Mr Silva said: “The weather conditions have been good for the past two years, which is reassuring. “There are fewer questions about snow. It’s now about the sanitary conditions.”