UK ski holiday firms in limbo as Covid restrictions and Brexit bite | Business

British holidaymakers, chalet owners and resort staff are in limbo as countries across Europe decide whether or not this winter’s ski season will go ahead.

This week, Britain’s biggest ski operator Crystal Ski Holidays was forced to cancel all its French ski trips in December after President Macron ordered the nation’s resorts to stay shut until the new year.

But a call by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for an EU-wide agreement to keep all European ski resorts closed until early January looks set to go unheeded by Switzerland, and possibly Austria.

Many staff who were due to travel out to resorts in the coming days to take up seasonal jobs have been told to stay at home. Meanwhile, those with holiday bookings for January and the busy February half-term are waiting to see whether their trips will go ahead.

“Everything’s up in the air with everyone waiting to see what each country decides to do in terms of reopening ski resorts,” said Lynsey Devon, whose PR firm represents many of the big resorts across Europe.

“We have already seen many of the big firms cancelling chalet-based ski holidays to prevent different groups mixing in the same accommodation, meaning that the number of chalet staff needed is way down.”

Charlotte Kyle is one of those caught up in the uncertainty. In August, the 19-year-old from Surrey was offered a chalet hosting job with the firm Ski Famille, and was due to travel to the Alps next week.

“It’s all gone very quiet and I’m not expecting to hear anything any time soon. I get the feeling that the ski firms are waiting like everyone else to hear whether the season will be going ahead. It’s frustrating but what can you do?” she said.

Recent UK business casualties of the pandemic include the travel firm VIP Ski, which went into administration on 17 November, saying: “It has proved impossible to navigate a way through this.” Experts have warned there will be further business failures if resorts do not open after January.

Ski resorts in France employ roughly 120,000 seasonal workers, while in Italy, winter tourism provides jobs for 400,000 people, from ski instructors and hoteliers to restaurant owners.

This week, Crystal Ski Holidays, part of the Tui group, said that because of the impact of Covid-19 and the restrictions now in place, it would not be able to operate holidays to several European destinations, including Austria and Switzerland, or the US until mid-December. Trips to France were off before the end of the year. The company said holidays due to depart after these dates were scheduled to operate as planned, although it was continuing to monitor the situation.

Brighton-based Ski Beat specialises in chalet holidays in the French Alps, where it has 59 chalets. Laura Hazell, its sales and marketing director, said that while it had reduced its catered chalet provision for this season, it had expanded its self-catered programme “due to strong demand from European and French domestic markets”.

The company said that as things currently stood, it had about 30 chalet hosts, reps and other seasonal resort staff going to France towards the end of December, with the aim of starting work in January. The firm has also opened bookings for the 2021-22 ski season six months earlier than usual.

Diane Palumbo, the sales and marketing director at Skiworld, which describes itself as the UK’s largest independent ski tour operator, said that with a Covid-19 vaccine seemingly on its way, the company was anticipating a busy February half-term, plus a potential mini boom in Easter bookings.

She added: “A lot of customers are now booking for 2021. I was just on the phone to the resort operators in Méribel [in the French Alps]. They are saying all the right things – the infection rate appears to be falling. It’s like the UK – there will be areas where travel is restricted and the same will emerge in France.”

Even before the latest coronavirus developments, Brexit had dealt a major blow to British employees seeking seasonal work as chalet hosts, bar staff and instructors in European ski resorts.

Barring an 11th-hour reprieve, from 1 January they are likely to find it more difficult to obtain work because the rules for Britons applying for seasonal jobs in EU countries such as France will become much more onerous.

Under the existing arrangements, UK staff who are working in the resorts before 31 December can remain in their jobs for the entirety of the 2020-21 ski season – but if the ski slopes in countries such as France are off-limits until January (or later), this puts companies in a very difficult position.

Meanwhile, high-end estate agents are insisting there is still a strong appetite among well-heeled Britons for buying properties in the Alps – with Covid-19 putting the spotlight on the health and wellness benefits of living in the mountains.

Knight Frank runs a ski property price index, and last month said that overall this had increased by 1.2% in 2020, “suggesting that Covid-19 has had little impact on prices to date”.

Skiing in Scotland

Skiers and snowboarders at Glenshee Ski Centre.

Skiers and snowboarders at Glenshee Ski Centre. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Scotland’s ski resorts will be open for Christmas and new year, unlike the shuttered resorts of the Alps. But before ardent skiers flock to the Cairngorms, there’s a small problem. At the mountain range’s biggest ski centre, Glenshee, the head of ski patrolling, Karen Hunter, said: “I’m looking out of my window here and right now there’s not one flake of snow to be seen.”

Glenshee formally opens on 19 December, while Glencoe in the west of Scotland opens its first chairlift on 5 December. “Live together, ride together” is the motto on the mountains, with skiers told they can only share a chairlift if the other person is within their household. Ski clothing can no longer be hired, while boots and skis must be booked in advance.

Access to the mountains will also be limited: Glencoe has a usual maximum of 1,500 skiers a day but is cutting that to only 500-600 each day this year.

Scotland’s ski season tends to begin late, with the slopes receiving their first proper cover in mid- to late January. But the season also lasts later into the year – so the first lockdown in March was a major blow.

“We had to shut on 22 March, even though we could have run the lifts until 15 May,” said Andy Meldrum, the managing director of Glencoe.

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He is confident of an early start this year, saying the resort’s snow machines will ensure that “we open on 19 December irrespective of the weather”.

But the Scottish resort operators candidly acknowledge that it is no replacement for a week’s holiday in the Alps.

“Scottish skiing is completely different – it’s more about sport than holidaying,” Meldrum said. “The Covid issue for the Alps is that they will see thousands of people descend on a small village for a week at a time. In Scotland it’s more last-minute. You’ll see the snow is good, grab a day off work and dash up from Glasgow.” Or, as Hunter puts it: “When it’s good, it’s like nowhere else in the world. But when it’s bad it’s unspeakably awful.”

The tiering system presents problems. Glenshee is tier 2 on its Aberdeen side and tier 3 on its Perthshire side, while Glencoe in the Highlands is tier 1.

Despite the challenges, operators say forward bookings – such as lift season passes – are holding up well.

Skiing in Scotland is remarkably good value compared with the Alps. A day pass in Glenshee is only £32, half the price of a typical day pass in the Alps, while skis and boot hire add another £24.