No uplift in sight for France's struggling ski resorts
France is in the middle of its winter holiday period when hundreds of thousands of people would ordinarily be heading off to mountain resorts in the Alps and Pyrenees to ski. But with ski lifts shut due to Covid-19, visitor numbers have slumped, threatening thousands of businesses and livelihoods.
In a typical year, some 60 percent of people who flock to the upmarket Courchevel ski resort in the Alps are foreign tourists in search of altitude, powdery snow and some of the best “après-ski” around.
But with bars, restaurants and ski lifts closed, and a 10-day compulsory quarantine for those who dare to venture over the border, the number of foreign visitors has plummeted.
Since December the resort has registered just a quarter of its usual clientele, most of them local French tourists.
“We came for a week in the mountains, the kids are at ski school and we’re doing cross-country skiing,” a man from neighbouring Grenoble told RFI.
“It’s great to try it out,” said his friend, “but sad to see how hard it is for friends working in the resort.”
"At 8am the terraces would usually be open everywhere, with people drinking coffee and preparing to head out onto the slopes," said local guide Bertrand Brun. “But it’s deserted.”
While the demand for cross-country skiing has rocketed this year, it won’t be enough to compensate for the drop in alpine skiing. So the resort has diversified as much as possible, pushing activities like dog sleighing, snowshoeing and snow-biking.
And in an attempt to fill up its hundreds of empty chalets, it has also tried to tap into the remote-working market.
“We’re offering very good monthly rentals to attract city dwellers,” said Alexia Lainé, Courchevel’s marketing director. “We charge about 1,500 euros for a flat for four people with Wi-Fi.
Pour contourner la fermeture des remontées, Courchevel ouvre une piste de ski accessible en voiture pic.twitter.com/Z3u4zoYeUI— BFMTV (@BFMTV) February 16, 2021
Unable to open its ski lifts, Courchevel has also taken the controversial initiative of opening up a slope for taxis and minibuses to take people up the mountain. The 2km slope was first opened for the ski schools, but now anyone can drive up there.
“We’re the only ones to have opened a slope and we hope this initiative will have a snowball effect on other ski resorts,” Lainé told Le Parisien.
Courchevel’s ski monitors, only 10 percent of whom are in work at the moment, welcomed the chance to use the taxi-minibus service. But many slammed what they deemed an unecological initiative. “The height of stupidity,” one commentator tweeted.
Lainé said they were looking in other ways to set off the increased carbon footprint.
France’s ski industry is a huge economic driver: 12 billion euros in annual turnover and 200,000 direct jobs. Resorts had been hoping they would be allowed to reopen ski lifts ahead of the February school holidays but the government deemed that the growing circulation of Covid variants made that too risky.
"A reopening in the middle or end of February is highly unlikely," tourism minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said on 20 January. "We are looking at a complete write-off for the season."
“It’s such a waste,” said local resident Claude sitting on one of the near-empty terraces. “The blue sky, fresh snow...it could have been a brilliant season! They tell us: ‘You can catch the virus on ski lifts but not on the metro.' What on earth are our leaders thinking? I’m appalled.
"The snow cannons are not going to be working, so the cannons of compensation must be there," Lemoyne added.
Prime Minister Jean Castex has announced a recovery plan worth 4 billion euros. But it won’t be enough to revive the ski resorts or, it would seem, rescue thousands of seasonal workers.
One woman, who preferred not to give her name, told RFI she’d been a seasonal worker for the last 30 years and was due to spend the winter in a shop in the Maurienne valley, some 30km south-west of Courchevel. But her four-month contract was cut to three weeks.
“My boss took me for a ride,” she said. “It’s not right, companies can get financial assistance to help with all of this, and they could have avoided leaving us on the roadside. When they need an extra pair of hands they’re only too happy to have us.”
Antoine Fatiga, a local CGT trade union rep, said he had received a record number of similar messages from desperate seasonal workers.
“Billions of euros are being handed out to the tourist sector, 400 million euros in December alone,” he told RFI. “But nothing is demanded in return, there’s no requirement for seasonal workers to be hired.”
Unemployment in the valleys around Courchevel is up by 30 percent on last winter and some businesses have taken on no extra staff at all.
“There are usually 30 of us, but we’re only about 5 or 6,” said Clément Bailly, co-owner of a ski shop in Courchevel.
Many of the seasonal workers he would usually employ would soon be ineligible for benefits. “I wanted to hire them using the partial unemployment scheme but it would have cost me 100,000 euros per month. I can’t advance that kind of money,” he said. “In fact it’s a good job we didn’t do that, we’d have gone under.”
Antoine Fatiga fears the shortage of jobs in the ski resorts could push people away from the mountains for good.
“People who’ve been here a long time have been telling me they’re going to see if there’s more work in town. The mountains are emptying,” he said regretfully.
The future of France’s alpine regions – which depend so heavily on winter snowfalls – is already looking fragile due to climate change. Now the Covid epidemic is forcing a rethink on their entire economic model.
Some businesses are already thinking how they might better prepare for next year – just in case it still isn’t "business as usual".
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