Owners of businesses in Italy's ski resort areas fear further economic damage. All photos: Marco Bertorello/AFP
With their sports shops, hotels and restaurants closed due to coronavirus restrictions, Italy's main ski resorts already resemble ghost towns. And hope of reopening for Christmas is fading fast.
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As the Italian government pepares to release a new set of coronavirus restrictions covering the month of December including Christmas, ministers have indicated that ski resorts won't be allowed to reopen until mid-January.
While the rules have not yet been officially confirmed, Minister for Regional Affairs Francesco Boccia said on Thursday: “The ski lifts and winter vacation system that is critical to our economy will reopen when the epidemic has cooled, hopefully within a month, a month and a half.”
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been pushing this week for neighbouring countries to follow suit, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for all EU ski resorts to be closed until January 10th.
The Italian government may also require Italian residents who travel abroad over Christmas to quarantine for 14 days on their return, a move which would be sure to make trips impossible for many.
Boccia stressed that financial support “will be guaranteed for all businesses that will not be able to open”.
But amid the uncertainty, business owners fear for the future.
In the alpine village of Sestriere, one of the hosts of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, Giovanni Brasso normally employs 350 full-time staff in his ski lift operating company.
But he fears that if they do not open for Christmas, they may not reopen at all this season.
“We take 45 percent of all the season's revenue over the Christmas holiday. If you take that away, we can't go on,” he told AFP.
“I am very bitter because I'm convinced the ski stations could reopen safely, by taking the necessary measures,” like they do in Switzerland.
He said they could work with Italian police to ensure skiers wear masks and keep their distance from each other.
The industry is still recovering from the abrupt end to last year's season caused when coronavirus swept Italy, sparking a national lockdown.
At the Lago Losetta hotel, on the edge of a little lake of the same name, owner Gianfranco Martin says closing until January 10 would be “a disaster”,
losing him 60 percent of his annual turnover.
“We are very concerned, and very pessimistic,” said Martin, himself an Olympic silver medallist.
Sestriere is also suffering from a lack of snow, a problem that could be, and has been in the past, resolved with cannons firing artificial snow.
But at a cost of 500,000 euros ($590,000), according to Martin, it would be a major investment with no guarantee of a return.
Apres-ski is also an attraction of a holiday on the slopes, but all that has stopped with new restrictions against Covid-19, which has surged again, taking Italy's death toll past 50,000.
Massimo Fontana, whose Igloo bar and restaurant is a popular spot, with big wooden tables and fur-covered stools overlooking the pistes, is trying to stay
“From an economic viewpoint, it's a horrifying loss. But if we want to get out of this situation (the pandemic), we have to find a compromise,” he said.
Merkel's call for a Europe-wide solution might be better than a country-by-country approach, he said. “We might receive some support.”
Some 200 kilometres north, still in the restricted “red” zone, the village of Cervinia has been allowed to keep some of its slopes and ski lifts open for athletes – one of the few to do so in Europe.
Professional skiers are allowed to practice at Cervinia. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
This partial reopening involves “a big economic sacrifice”, based of the expectation of business as usual over Christmas, said Matteo Zanetti, who runs the local ski lift company.
Closing over the holidays would require “significant support” from the government, he said. “The economic damage would be huge.”
Erjon Tola, an Albanian Olympic athlete who is also a ski instructor, is already finding it tough.
For two months during the spring, he earned nothing, living on 600 euros a month in government hand-outs. “It's a critical situation,” he said.
“It's so unfair that we're closed,” added Gianlorenzo Vaudagnotto, who runs two ski shops.
“Skiing is not like being in a nightclub – you're alone, and in the fresh air. And by managing the situation properly, we could all be open.”
He said one of the hardest things was not knowing: “We wait, we've got nothing to do.”