Europe’s skiers set for ’emotional’ return

Some miss the thrill of it. Some miss breathing in crisp, pure air on a sparkling mountainside. Others yearn for a cold drink on a sun-drenched terrace, or a cozy meal by a roaring fire after a day on the slopes.

Whatever draws people to the mountains, winter holidays in Europe have been largely on hold for two years because of the pandemic.

But now skiers across the continent are buzzing at the prospect of what for many will be an “emotional” return to the slopes as travel restrictions ease and resorts are given the green light to open.

The mountains, it seems, are calling like never before.

“The desire to return to slopes has created a palpable sense of excitement,” said Richard Lumb, co-founder and director of Kaluma Ski, an upmarket tour operator with luxury properties in Courchevel, France, and St. Anton, Austria.

“The sheer tenacity of guests preparing for the ski season is evident in the calls we are taking — people will ski this season.

“There’s a lot of positivity. We’re way ahead of bookings in a pre-pandemic market.”

Tears and smiles

He added: “Clipping into our skis for the first time in what will be two years for most people, will be an emotional moment.

“Whether we express this through tears or beaming smiles, it’s going to be very special indeed.”

The outbreak of Covid-19 in Europe in February of 2020 cut short the winter season with ski resorts seen as virus hotspots as people from all over the world mixed in confined spaces such as ski lifts, bars, restaurants and chalets.

After the initial lockdowns, many resorts were hopeful of opening again before last Christmas but the enduring pandemic led governments in France, Italy and Germany to delay and then ultimately order that lifts should remain closed for the season.

In Austria, some lifts remained open at a reduced capacity for locals only, with no accommodation or hospitality available in resorts. Ski areas in Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Slovenia and Bulgaria did continue to operate, although travel restrictions limited access for most.

Now, though, with extensive vaccine uptake, many borders open in some capacity and lockdowns on hold, the ski season looks set to happen across the continent.

Restrictions will be different across nations and regions, and will comprise mask wearing in certain settings, some limits on lift capacity, social distancing measures, and crucially, to access indoor venues such as bars and restaurants as well as some ski lifts, proof of the EU-wide vaccine passport to show an individual is either double jabbed, has recovered from Covid or has evidence of a recent negative test.

‘It’s happening’

British vaccination certificates will be accepted across more than 40 countries covered by the scheme, including member states and other non-EU nations such as Switzerland and Norway. Rules for US travelers to Europe are in flux with 27 countries currently open to vaccinated visitors, although Bulgaria, Norway and Sweden are notably closed entirely to incomers from the US.

Lifts have already been running in some high-altitude glacier resorts such as Zermatt, Engelberg, Andermatt and Saas Fee in Switzerland, Tignes and Les Deux Alpes in France, Cervinia in Italy, Hintertux and Solden in Austria, as well as Ruka and Levi in Finland and Idre Fjall in Sweden.

“I think it’s past the point of return for most resorts, they’ve put too much in place. It’s happening and everyone’s going to enjoy it, people are chomping at the bit. It will be a big return to the Alps,” added Lumb, who was reassured at a recent travel industry event at a London embassy.

“There are a few concerns about how things will operate, and there will be a few restrictions, but I don’t think there will be very many.

“My kids have already been into the loft to get their ski gloves and goggles. Skiing is always our best family holiday and we are planning on making up for the lost season.”

Back to ‘normal’

Although parts of Austria were this week poised to instigate new lockdowns for the unvaccinated, Austrian lifts had planned to operate at full capacity for those able to produce their “3G” certificate — or Covid passport — when they purchase tickets, with visitors required to wear a FFP2 face mask in gondolas and cable cars and shops.

Hotels, restaurants and certain bars will also require the 3G entry pass, while late-night bars and clubs will demand stricter proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

In St. Anton, part of the vast Arlberg ski area of western Austria, indications are promising that the season will run “normally,” according to Mario Matt, the owner of the famous Krazy Kanguruh restaurant and apres-ski bar set on the slopes above the town.

“At the moment it looks very good, everybody is prepared for the season, we are ready, our staff are hired and we are looking forward to a normal season,” said Matt, a double world ski champion and the 2014 Olympic slalom gold medalist, who bought the bar in 2009 while still competing on the World Cup ski circuit.

“We have to see how the rules change, it’s hard to tell at the moment, but we’re looking forward to a great season. People are just wanting to have a normal life back and be happy and enjoying their time.”

Last winter St. Anton ran a handful of lifts for locals but the resort was closed and had the air of a “ghost town.”

“We’ve had a hard time,” said Matt, who was known as the “Eagle of the Arlberg.”

“Two years ago was the best season we ever had and then we had to close in March [2020]. Last winter was sad to see. Locals could use some lifts but to see the ski resort completely shut down, nobody could ever have imagined something like this could happen.

“So to see the Krazy Kanguruh back to like we had before, full with people, happy people, will be an amazing feeling.”

The Austrian, who also trains Arabian horses, is looking forward to reigniting the atmosphere of old in the “KK” with revelers dancing on tables in ski boots, restrictions permitting.

“It’s fun, I like it when it’s a busy atmosphere, I’ll get behind the bar and help. I enjoy it,” he added.

The rules vary subtly across the continent and are subject to change. For instance, in France the “pass sanitaire” will not be needed to buy lift tickets but is mandatory for indoor bars and restaurants, while Italy’s “green pass” will be required for purchasing lift tickets alongside those indoor hospitality venues, both for anyone over 12.

In Italy, open air lifts will run at full capacity but enclosed lifts only at 80%. In Switzerland there is currently no Covid pass rule on the ski slopes, but the certification legislation for indoor venues is for over 16s.

“Fresh air and cleanliness”

The key to a successful winter holiday will be to keep abreast of the up-to-date requirements in chosen destinations.

“The rules are straightforward: when you get to the top you can remove your masks and make the most of the fresh air, breathtaking views and stunning landscapes,” said the official website for Les 3 Vallees, which includes the resorts of Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens, and claims to be the world’s largest ski area with more than 600 kilometers of groomed slopes.

That feeling of reaching the top of a lift, taking in the scenery and anticipating your next run is what many people have missed during the pandemic and is the essence of why many return to the mountains year after year.

“It’s that openness and excitement of breathing in the fresh air and the cleanliness in the Alps and just being in the mountains,” said Briton Mandy Hickson, a regular skier with her husband and two sons.

“That’s something that even my teenagers have missed. We’re all desperate to get out there.

“It’s just having that rush of cold air on your face and that feeling of being in the snow. I can’t believe how much I’ve missed it.”

Hickson, a former Tornado pilot, added: “Clicking into your skis when you haven’t done it for a while is a bizarre feeling, you think that you’re going to be like Bambi, but actually it comes back almost immediately.

“I’m a speed freak so I love that feeling of the rush and the speed so that’s what I’m truly looking forward to. Pure skiing.”

Even for locals like Matt, who has spent a lifetime on skis, the return to normality will be a much-needed tonic for the soul.

“After a snowfall, when we have blue sky in the morning, just to go up in the first lift and enjoy the powder is an amazing feeling and anyone who’s done it before knows what I mean,” he said.

“Even for me who does it every season, this is always something very special.”

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