With Ski Resorts Closed Across Europe, Die-Hards Descend on Switzerland

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With Ski Resorts Closed Across Europe, Die-Hards Descend on Switzerland

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland—Rainer Pototschnig just wanted to go skiing. This year, his choice was Switzerland or Switzerland.

All other countries around the Alps are closed for ski tourism because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so the 46-year-old from Vienna, Austria, got up at 3 a.m. on a recent morning and drove eight hours with his girlfriend to reach this upscale Swiss resort. The couple stayed in a hotel and avoided crowds while skiing.

“I thought this out. I didn’t just get in the car and start driving,” said Mr. Pototschnig, who works in advertising and made the ski weekend his girlfriend’s Christmas gift. “Skiing can be safe if you avoid the partying,” he said.

On a recent morning, cars parked near one of St. Moritz’s main lift stations sported license plates from Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Poland.

Switzerland is holding out against pressure from other European countries to shut down its ski lifts, even though the country is struggling with one of Europe’s highest Covid-19 infection rates. Like elsewhere in Europe, anti-contagion measures punctuate Swiss daily life: Face masks are obligatory almost everywhere, large gatherings are banned, and restaurants and bars have limited hours. But Swiss authorities say skiing is safe.

A staff member at the Swiss resort Verbier checked skiers for face masks in a queue for a lift on Nov. 15.

Photo: fabrice coffrini/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Other European countries are worried that ski resorts could become coronavirus hot spots, as happened in early 2020. Earlier this month, after diplomatic pressure from Germany, Italy and France, Austria clamped down on foreign ski tourists. Intrepid skiers turned their attention to Switzerland.

“We have seen strong demand for Switzerland in the past few weeks,” said Rupert Longsdon, chief executive of Oxford Ski Company, which organizes luxury ski vacations. “It’s a combination of clients that had booked in places now closed, and you always get people last minute asking where they can go ski.”

Slopes at St. Moritz are uncrowded as tourists from the U.S. and some European countries would face a required quarantine upon arrival.

Photo: ERIC SYLVERS/The Wall Street Journal

Instead of closing, Switzerland is trying to apply social-distancing measures on the slopes. Restaurants and bars at ski resorts can offer only takeout, and lift capacity is capped at two-thirds the normal maximum. Face masks are required except while actually skiing. People must stay 1.5 meters, or about 5 feet, apart.

In St. Moritz, ski-lift operators stand by, ready to remind people to pull up their masks. In practice, they rarely need to intervene since virtually all guests wear a mask on or near the lifts, or when lining up for takeout pizza, strudel and hot drinks.

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If Switzerland’s approach works, it could become a template for reopening ski resorts safely elsewhere. Germany, Italy and France have said they plan to allow ski resorts to open in January. Austria will open its lifts for limited numbers on Dec. 24, but since hotels will stay closed, few foreign tourists will be able to come.

Some countries are trying to discourage people from traveling to Switzerland by imposing a mandatory quarantine when they return home or requiring a negative coronavirus test. Mr. Pototschnig and his girlfriend managed to travel before Austria imposed such restrictions.

In Europe, memories are still fresh of the Covid-19 debacle at Austrian ski resort Ischgl early this year. Skiers returning home from Ischgl, where the party scene is as big a draw as the slopes, were later linked to thousands of infections all over Europe.

“This isn’t Ischgl. You couldn’t even party here if you wanted to because everything is closed,” said Daniel Schmidt, 33, who traveled to St. Moritz from Germany and is staying in an Airbnb rental with two friends. “There won’t be much chance for me to catch the virus,” he said.

While skiing is an individual sport practiced outside, there are crunch points. Chief among those are the lifts, especially gondola lifts, whose closed cabins are often packed. In St. Moritz, some of the gondola runs from the main valley in recent days were filled with masked skiers close enough together that they were touching.

Covid-19 safety signs remind skiers to wear face masks on lifts in Saint Moritz.

Photo: ERIC SYLVERS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Photos in early December showed crowds of skiers massed together as they waited for a lift in the Swiss resort of Verbier. In response, resorts including St. Moritz deployed more workers for crowd control and say they have fixed the problem.

“We know that all eyes are on us, and that if we’re deemed unsafe we’ll be shut down immediately,” said Adrian Jordan, chief operating officer of Engadin St. Moritz Mountains, the town’s lift-operating company.

So far this winter season, only 10% of St. Moritz’s skiers are from abroad, compared with one-third in past years. Locals say it is the quarantine requirements on returning home that are keeping foreigners away, rather than fear of catching the virus here.

Switzerland doesn’t currently require visitors from Germany, France and most of Western Europe to quarantine after entering the country. There is a 10-day quarantine requirement for people arriving from several regions of Italy and Austria, as well as some countries in Eastern Europe and the U.S.

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St. Moritz, Verbier and other Swiss resorts have set up coronavirus testing sites where foreign guests can get a rapid test before returning home. Some countries, such as Italy, require a more accurate PCR test that has to be processed in a lab.

Despite the travel restrictions, German, Italian, British and Russian skiers are still showing up at the Kulm, one of Saint Moritz’s historic 5-star hotels.

Heinz Hunkeler, chief executive of the Kulm and another nearby 5-star hotel, said he would hold firm on prices, quashing the hopes of skiers aiming to get a luxury ski trip on the cheap due to the pandemic. A superior double room with a lakeside view costs about $1,300 a night in the week before Christmas, in line with last year.

“Lowering rates can lead to a spiral that can take a decade to get out of,” said Mr. Hunkeler as he sipped a tea in the Kulm’s opulent lobby.

Skiers enjoying empty slopes in the Swiss resort of Arosa last month.

Photo: gian ehrenzeller/Shutterstock

Write to Eric Sylvers at eric.sylvers@wsj.com

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