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Europe’s ski market crushed by Covid-19

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Gérard Brudi, who rents two apartments to winter workers in the popular French ski resort of Val Thorens, has not had a single booking this year.

Despite snow falling and sunny weather, the ski lifts are closed. The travel reps that would normally host guests have little more to do than check empty chalets for freezing pipes.

Val Thorens can host about 50,000 visitors a week at peak but there are currently just a few thousand scattered weekend guests.

“We are absolutely, as we French say, in incertitude,” said Mr Brudi. “People don’t rent flats or hotels at a high price just for sniffing the good fresh air. If I cannot ski, I am not interested.”

The European Alps make up more than a third of the world’s 2,084 ski resorts, according to data from industry analyst, Laurent Vanat. Its ski season typically produces €28bn in revenues, also about a third of the global total and almost 7 per cent of the overall value of the EU’s tourism market.

But this season will generate nothing close to that. After Covid-19 cut short the busy Easter period during its initial spread through Europe in March — leaving operators and airlines scrambling to repatriate holidaymakers — a third wave looks set to wipe out bookings over Christmas and New Year.

Many resorts across Austria and Italy are closed, while France has said all ski lifts will be shut until January 7. Switzerland has cautiously opened but is under pressure from its European neighbours to close again and with quarantine restrictions in place, international travel is all but banned.

With the average price of a ski holiday from the UK to the Alps costing around £1,200, consumers are wary of committing as infection rates creep up across the continent and authorities change restrictions.

The Alps contain more than a third of the world’s ski resorts

Season ‘on a knife edge’

Crystal Ski Holidays, the biggest company in the industry, said bookings were “well over” 50 per cent down on last year’s levels. The operator usually sends about 170,000 tourists to the Alps each season but has halved its capacity from January onwards and cut the number of resorts it feeds by more than a fifth.

Its nearest rival, Hotelplan, which is less than half Crystal Ski’s size, cancelled all bookings for December and January, as well as its annual Santa programme to Lapland.

“The rest of the season is on a knife edge”, said Joe Ponte who became chief executive of Hotelplan in October. “As an operator we just have to understand the myriad different circumstances and communicate that to customers.”

Owen Chapman, head of member services at Ski Club of Great Britain (SCGB), a tour operator and the UK’s oldest snow sports association, said bookings were 70 per cent below last year. Because hotels were contracted and costs committed in advance, the company has had to cancel holidays six to 10 weeks ahead or face steep losses.

A sign telling people to cover their faces at the Kleine Scheidegg ski resort in Grindelwald, Switzerland © Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg
If international skiers do decide to thwart government advice and travel, costs are high and connections few © Fabrice Cofferini/AFP/Getty

The closures and cancellations have left the ski holiday sector facing significant losses.

Crystal Ski is owned by the travel group, Tui, which this month reported a record annual loss of €3.2bn.

Crystal Ski and Hotelplan both said they had negotiated costs and capacity reductions with hoteliers to minimise the financial damage.

But having lost a quarter of last season’s revenues after the onset of coronavirus, several smaller operators have already gone bankrupt. The 23-year-old UK-based chalet expert, Alpine Elements, was the latest to collapse into administration this month.

Chris Hamblin, managing director of The Boutique Chalet Company, said that with 14 properties to let and next to no bookings, he was unsure whether his company would survive. “It’s so difficult to forward forecast at the moment.”

Hitting the slopes

Few flights and no parties

If international skiers do decide to thwart government advice and travel, costs are high and connections few. EasyJet, the biggest carrier to Geneva, the Alps gateway airport, has cut more than three-quarters of its flights there for January. The few insurance companies willing to cover holidays against official guidance do not insure against catching Covid-19, although some will cover cancellation or curtailment as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s very difficult to find that cover so you either take the risk and go without or pay a lot but not get the full cover,” said Mr Chapman of SCGB.

The European Alps make up more than a third of the world’s 2,084 ski resorts © Jean-Christophe Bott/EPA/Shutterstock
Operators are holding on to hopes of a bumper 2021-22 season and have opened bookings early © Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty

Skiers must also be aware that the experience will not be the same as previous years.

“We need to be very honest with customers that they can’t expect Austrian après or the Folie Douce [a well-known bar] in Val d’Isère to be what it used to be,” said Chris Logan, managing director of Crystal Ski.

The Austrian resort of Ischgl — known as the “Ibiza of the Alps” — became one of the 10 highest-risk areas for coronavirus in the spring, raising fears of a similar scenario this season.

“Ischgl was an après party town, which they won’t be selling themselves on this year,” added Mr Logan.

The European snow-sport industry is also facing challenges from Brexit. As well as British holidaymakers losing access to the European Health Insurance Card scheme, UK companies send about 25,000 seasonal workers to the Alps on UK contracts each year. From January, staff must be employed by companies on local contracts with the knock-on requirement that employees and businesses will have to pay social security contributions and abide by stricter working conditions, pushing up the cost of labour.

Popularity of skiing over the past 15 years

Most operators said they would hire locally rather than fly workers out, while others have cut down their chalet operations staffed by UK hosts, which British skiers have traditionally favoured.

Hopes rise for 2021

There are some green shoots for ski resorts. Demand for the summer season surged as city dwellers made a rush to the mountains to escape lockdown tedium. Hotelplan said walking trips had increased from 25 to 55 per cent of overall booking volumes with its adventure Explore brand in 2021.

Accommodation bookings for the whole season — allowing remote workers to do their jobs from resorts if they can and ski on the side — have also boomed as has interest in alternatives to skiing. Sales of ski kit are at historic lows but retailers have noted more demand for cross country ski touring boots and bindings, while hotels in the French Alps, where lifts are closed, are marketing snowball fights, snowshoe walks, and at one a “pure altitude” massage.

For now, most operators are holding on to hopes of a bumper 2021-22 season and have opened bookings early.

“We already have several thousand booked for next season when typically we only have several hundred,” Mr Logan said, although many reservations had been pushed forward from this season.

Xavier Schouller, managing director of Peak Retreats, another ski tour operator, noted that customers were using this year’s unspent holiday budget and trading up: “We have seen quite a lot more demand for upmarket accommodation than we would normally see.”

He added that he was not “totally disappointed” that resorts had been forced to close: “Better to have the second part [of the season] than have a small bite at it, and lose the rest.”



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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France to offer mRNA jabs as second dose after AstraZeneca 

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France has become the second country after Germany to recommend that younger people who have had a first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine be given a different jab for their follow-up shot.

The mixed-dose approach has been recommended by health experts in both countries — despite there being little clinical trial data to support it — because of the slim risk that younger people can develop blood clots when given the AstraZeneca jab.

The World Health Organization reiterated its position on Friday that there was “no data on interchangeability of vaccine platforms”, noting further research was needed.

The move comes as the European Medicines Agency said it is also probing a possible link between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and four serious cases of unusual blood clots in the US, where it is currently being rolled out. It is not yet being distributed in the EU or UK. The vaccine is based on an adenovirus vector, similar to the AstraZeneca shot.

The EMA said it was not yet clear whether there was a causal link. J&J said it is working with experts and regulators to assess the data. “Our close tracking of side effects has revealed a small number of very rare events following vaccination,” it said. “At present, no clear causal relationship has been established.” 

In France, the policy will affect roughly 530,000 people under age 55 who were given a first shot of AstraZeneca from early February to mid-March when they were eligible under its strategy of giving healthcare workers the vaccine, while reserving the mRNA vaccines for elderly people most at risk.

The Haute Autorité de Santé, a panel of medical experts which advises the government, has said they should be given booster shots from BioNTech/Pfizer or Moderna. France has changed course to use AstraZeneca only in people aged above 55 since the blood clot issue emerged.

France announced its decision on Friday after the HAS recommended the mixed-dose strategy. Germany took a similar stance in early April. 

Health minister Olivier Véran told RTL radio on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was “totally logical” given the analysis of European regulators and France’s desire to continue its vaccination campaign as the scientific evidence evolved.

European countries, whose vaccination campaigns have been slower than world leaders such as the US, Israel, and the UK, have been grappling with how to use AstraZeneca doses since the blood clot reports emerged, with some countries applying new age restrictions and others pausing its use entirely.

But with Covid-19 still spreading, officials are also seeking to reassure people that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s benefits still largely outweigh the risks. 

The European Medicines Agency recently established that there was a “possible link” between the AstraZeneca vaccine and unusual blood clots with low blood platelets that have mostly affected women under 60 years old, though regulators have said there is no specific risk factor by gender.

The EMA said it had examined at least 86 such reported cases and 16 deaths, and recommended updating the vaccine’s safety information to list the clots as a possible side effect.

Élisabeth Bouvet, a vaccine expert and member of the HAS, said on Friday that the mixed-dose approach was a practical solution intended to protect younger people, who are at lower risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, from the risk of blood clotting side effects. “It is really a choice based on safety,” she said.

“Given that the protection of the Covid-19 vaccines begins to diminish after three months, these people need an additional dose,” she added. “The idea is to give mRNA vaccine as a second dose for this population in a ‘prime-boost’ strategy.”

Even in the absence of clinical data, Bouvet said that they believed the approach carried low risks of side effects and was likely to offer people additional protection given that the Covid-19 vaccines all aim at the same spike protein on the coronavirus.

“We think that this approach will work,” she said. “There is no reason to expect any particular side effects with mixed dosing but it would be good to study the immune response it creates.” 

Peter English, a retired Public Health England consultant in communicable disease control, said it was “reasonable” to use other vaccines, particularly in younger patients, until the risk of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine has been clarified.

“If we are to achieve vaccine-induced herd immunity [not just through masks and social distancing] a high uptake of vaccination will be required in the groups most likely to spread the virus, not just in those most at risk if infected,” he said, noting vaccine mixing and matching has been done for other diseases. 

Trials studying a combination of vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s and Russia’s Sputnik V shots, are under way.



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