It was almost too good to be true. We were sliding into the ski season without a bump in our path, then in a matter of days travel restrictions around the globe went from being in the favour of skiers and snowboarders, to threatening to push the start of the ski season off a cliff.
Late last week, as coronavirus cases in Europe surged, France announced tightened rules for the use of its health pass ('pass sanitaire') in ski resorts – this was swiftly followed by global reaction to the newly discovered omicron variant. The UK rushed to reimpose the red list and, after the first British cases were detected on Saturday, Switzerland swiftly pulled down the quarantine-free shutters to any UK arrivals. This all comes a matter of days after Austria began a new national firebreak lockdown, with holidays cancelled as a consequence.
Keeping up? You’d be forgiven for feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the influx of new rules – after almost two years of disruption and cancelled holidays, skiers and snowboarders are yet again bearing the brunt of governments’ (some might say hasty) reactions to the pandemic.
Iain Martin, host of The Ski Podcast, summarised the mood: “The events of the last 72 hours have been a total disaster as far as the ski industry is concerned,” he said. “The confidence in future travel that was so strong only a week ago has been ripped to shreds and many businesses simply won’t survive.”
Meanwhile Edward Argar, Minister of State for Health, has urged Britons not to cancel holidays but to accept an element of risk.
With so many unknowns rearing their head as the snow begins to fall, here we detail the dilemmas currently facing ski holidays, and how you can best plan to make sure your long-awaited return to the slopes goes ahead.
Mandatory quarantine in Switzerland
On Saturday, Switzerland announced that it was adding the UK to its travel quarantine list, meaning any arrivals face 10 days in isolation. It’s a major blow for Swiss resorts, which had seemed to be a safe bet for Britons wanting to return to the slopes this winter following their success at staying open last season.
Until further notice British ski holidays in Switzerland are effectively off the cards, but the new quarantine rule could also spill over to impact trips to France.
Geneva Airport is a popular hub for ski operators and independent travellers who travel on to resorts in the French Alps, and even some Italian resorts are fed by flights into the Swiss city. Under the new decree anybody transiting through Switzerland must also quarantine for 10 days.
While the airport does have a French sector, according to its website all international arrivals must pass through Swiss territory before they reach the French gate. As it stands this would mean all these passengers from the UK must isolate, regardless of their final destination.
A spokesperson from Consensio Chalets, which operates properties in France, told The Telegraph that Swiss immigration have confirmed that transiting through Geneva Airport will not be allowed under the new rules. “Their instructions are that anyone arriving from the UK must be taken to Covid-19 test centre and tested, and show proof of reservation for quarantine, or they will be sent back to the UK.” An official announcement on this is yet to be made and currently the gov.uk website states that only those in transit 'airside' at the airport are exempt from quarantine rules.
If there’s no flexibility in the rules, thousands of ski holidays in the French Alps could be in jeopardy as operators are forced to reroute flights or cancel holidays completely.
Tightened restrictions in France
From a skier's point of view, there’s been a trio of unwelcome announcements from across the Channel in recent days. As cases surge on the continent, France has also acted to curb the spread. It was revealed late last week that the French government has changed the testing requirements for unvaccinated people who, in order to activate the pass sanitaire (allowing them to enter cafés, museums and other indoor public venues) must take a PCR or antigen test every 24 hours, rather than 72 hours as it was previously.
Also announced was that, from January 15, a third booster dose will be mandatory for all adults to activate their health pass. If an adult has not had a booster within seven months of their second jab, then their pass will be deactivated and they’ll have to join the unvaccinated in getting tested daily.
Finally, the French government has committed to not introducing the health pass as a requirement on ski lifts unless case rates surpassed 200 per 100,000. However, the latest figures show cases surpassing 300 over the weekend. As a result, any British skier who is not yet eligible for a booster in the UK (largely anybody under 40) faces having to test every day during their ski holiday in France this season, in order to get on the lifts, eat in restaurants or go to a bar – along with any teenagers who have only received a single shot of a two-dose vaccine. Devastatingly for people’s budgets, these tests, which are carried out at local resort pharmacies, cost a reported €40 each.
Additional costs of PCR testing
The additional costs required to go on holidays this winter continued to rise on Saturday when Boris Johnson announced that all arrivals, including vaccinated people, will be required to take a PCR test by the end of their second day in the UK. These tests must be booked through a private provider and the reference number used to fill in your passenger locator form. Previously a cheaper lateral flow test was accepted. PCR tests range vastly in price from £20 to £399.
What’s more, all arrivals must quarantine until the results are returned (if negative). Quick turnaround tests are available, but will likely add hundreds of pounds to the cost of a ski holiday this winter, especially for families.
Operators such as Inghams and Crystal, and airlines including easyJet and Ryanair, have developed partnerships with testing companies to offer discounts on mandatory testing – the only form of respite from rising costs.
Lockdown in Austria
Austria entered a new national lockdown on November 22, with all holidays to the country cancelled and resort openings delayed. It has had a devastating impact on early-season escapes. The Austrian government has committed to ending the lockdown no later than December 13 but it is unclear what rules will be in force after this date, or whether the discovery of the omicron variant will set plans back.
Before the lockdown was introduced skiers were required to have proof of vaccination or recovery in order to access the ski slopes as part of the “2G” rule – leaving many unvaccinated holidaymakers out in the cold this winter.
The season for British operators in Austria only gets into full swing from Christmas onwards, meaning most holidays won’t be cancelled by the latest development – but many will be left nervous by Austria’s snap decision and what is yet to come.
Limited options for unvaccinated travellers
Unvaccinated skiers, and families with teenagers, face a particularly troublesome winter as it stands. Canada, for example, will only permit entry to double-jabbed arrivals and in Italy unvaccinated adults must isolate for five days. Even in Sweden, where rules in resorts are invitingly hassle-free, there is still a ban on unvaccinated arrivals.
British families with older children also face hurdles, since teenagers in the UK can currently only receive one dose of a two-dose vaccine. They are therefore deemed as unvaccinated in the countries listed above, as well as in places like France and Austria.
Should you cancel your trip?
The advice from operators last week was for skiers to sit tight. This remains the case because as it stands – save from Switzerland – ski holidays are still able to operate.
If you have a ski holiday booked to Switzerland in the coming weeks with an Atol-bonded company your operator will be responsible for cancelling your break or offering you an alternative. Wait for the company to cancel your trip, rather than cancelling unilaterally, or you may not be eligible for a refund. Insurance claims will only be valid if the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advises against travel to your selected destination or the country goes into lockdown.
If you’re flying into Geneva to visit France or Italy you may also have concerns but, as Richard Sinclair from agent SNO explains, operators will be looking at alternative options: “Suppliers are already looking at options to move flights away from Geneva if the Swiss rule change isn’t as temporary as expected, so the travel industry is already working on solutions to the seemingly random way that difference countries react.”
If you’re travelling independently and have flights booked, it’s worth checking your airline's policy. For example easyJet customers can change their flights without a change fee up to two hours before departure. “EasyJet also continues to offer a market-leading refund policy for those impacted by travel bans across Europe, which means that they can receive a refund, voucher or free transfer to a later date, even if their flights are still operating,” said a spokesperson.
If you’re simply nervous about travelling following recent developments, you should contact your holiday company, accommodation or airline provider directly to see if you can rebook. There will be no obligation for any company to issue a refund due to holiday nerves, but you can contact them to ask if this is an option. The key advice remains the same however: do not cancel unilaterally, or you will not receive a refund.Internet Explorer Channel Network