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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Thousands protest against French Covid health pass rules
French politics updates
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Over 200,000 people marched in cities across France on Saturday in the biggest turnout of three consecutive weekends of protests, calling for an end to what they see as draconian rules forcing them to get vaccinated against their will.
They marched down the streets of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and elsewhere, shouting “This is a health dictatorship!” and “No vaccination, no health pass!”, in protests that included a wide range of social and political movements.
Staunch Communists marched with supporters of the far-right Rassemblement National party and some from the gilets jaunes movement against a new law making Covid-19 vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers and requiring a health pass for anyone wanting to enter public places such as restaurants, bars and high-speed trains.
“This is an experimental vaccine, we do not know what all of the side effects will be for ourselves or our children,” said Catherine Largo, a 42-year-old dental assistant, who is legally obliged to get vaccinated before the autumn but says she will refuse to do so.
The vaccines used in France have been extensively tested around the world and approved by the European and French medical authorities.
“I won’t be able to find other work, because what else would I do?” she said, as she arrived at one of four protests taking place in Paris on Saturday afternoon. “We should have the choice, we should have the liberty to choose.”
Although the final version of the law was watered down last weekend, a vocal minority of French citizens remain up in arms about the rules which they believe infringe on their personal liberties. But despite the pockets of angry opponents, the policy has so far proved successful at boosting vaccination rates and has been met with approval from the wider public.
Over 60 per cent of people are in favour of the health pass to enter public places and 70 per cent support compulsory vaccination for caregivers, according to an Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll conducted this month.
Around 204,000 people marched on the streets of France on Saturday, up from 161,000 a week before and 114,000 the week before that, according to estimates from the interior ministry.
One protester missing this week was François Asselineau, president of the pro-Frexit Popular Republican Union party and an ardent campaigner against the health pass, who was unable to attend the march in Paris after he tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday.
The 2022 presidential candidate said he was suffering from “body aches, fever and a cough” in a video posted on his party’s website, but told his followers that he had obtained ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as a treatment, both controversial drugs which scientists say have no proven benefit against Covid-19.
Macron announced the extended application of the health pass in the midst of a vaccination campaign that was losing momentum while the highly infectious Delta variant was spreading fast.
So far his decision to power ahead with the hardline vaccination strategy appears to have paid off. The number of first doses being administered per day has jumped back up to more than 350,000 after stagnating around 160,000 last month, according to data from the government compiled by Covidtracker.fr.
France has overtaken the US in the proportion of its population that is fully vaccinated — 52 per cent against 50 per cent in the US and 56 per cent in the UK, according to Our World in Data.
Only 7 per cent of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in France between May 31 and July 11 had been fully vaccinated, according to data released by the French government this week.
Turkey’s marine crisis: ‘death knells are ringing for Sea of Marmara’
For a decade, marine biologist Nur Eda Topcu has fought to preserve delicate corals off the Istanbul coastline, which environmentalists say are threatened by the dumping of industrial waste, fuel and sewage.
Now she fears a new threat may hasten the end of the Sea of Marmara’s coral reefs. A gelatinous substance colloquially known as sea snot has in recent months choked aquatic life, blighted fishing and repelled swimmers.
Long brown streaks of the marine mucilage were still visible across the Marmara in late July, while the gooey foam sank below the surface settling on the rare corals. Scientists warn that the sea, whose mix of Mediterranean and Black Sea currents foster coral usually found at far deeper depths, itself is at risk.
“The death knells are ringing for the Marmara,” said Topcu after surfacing from a recent dive to clean the slime that coated normally fuchsia-hued corals off an Istanbul archipelago. “We can’t stop the mucilage. It’s smothering the gorgonians [and] infecting them with harmful bacteria.” She fears most of Marmara’s soft, red Paramuricea clavata, listed as a vulnerable species of coral, will perish this year.
Factories have nearly doubled the deluge of wastewater they discharge into Turkey’s seas in recent years, according to official statistics. The 50,000 tankers that sail through the Marmara each year illegally dump waste and fuel, according to one municipal monitor. Almost two-thirds of the nation’s industry, including an oil refinery, carmakers, chemical plants and power stations, is concentrated in the region.
Most wastewater from Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is only treated to remove solids, then pumped to the bottom of the sea. “We use it as our cesspool,” said Levent Artuz, a hydrobiologist at the Marmara Environmental Monitoring Project and author of a new book A Recent History of the Polluting of the Sea of Marmara.
The situation was not helped by the fact that sea temperatures had climbed by an average two degrees Celsius in the Marmara since the start of this century as pollution trapped heat, he said. A state project that diverted the Ergene River, one of Europe’s most toxic waterways, to the Marmara last year was “the tipping point”.
“The essential problem isn’t mucilage. That’s just a link in the chain of decades of degradation,” Artuz said. “We have zero chance of recovering the Sea of Marmara as it was. What we have to do now is figure out how to prevent the Marmara from harming us.”
In recent years, marine life has died in mass mortality events, and there have been infestations of jellyfish and algal blooms such as red tides and mucilage.
But scientists and fishermen say the current flare-up is unprecedented. Phytoplankton is flourishing because of nutrient-rich sewage and fertiliser from agricultural runoff while overfishing has wiped out populations of small fish and crustaceans that would consume the algae.
Gone are the mackerel, tuna, swordfish and other seafood that Istanbul was known for. This year’s haul was down 90 per cent from 2020 as mucilage clogged and dragged off nets, said Erdogan Kartal, the head of Istanbul’s fishing co-operative. “Even if we could supply fish markets, customers aren’t buying out of disgust.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has vowed to crack down on polluters and “save our seas from this scourge of mucilage”. Thousands of cubic metres of the sea snot had been vacuumed up, the country’s environment minister said. In early July, he pronounced the Marmara “cleaner and bluer” than before.
Turkey is the only G20 country that has not ratified the Paris accords on climate change, and grassroots movements to protect the environment are often viewed as provocateurs by the government.
Authorities have refused to register a new Green party eager to fight climate change. Scientists also say that a planned shipping canal from the Black Sea to the Marmara could deplete oxygen in the Marmara and promote hydrogen sulphur gas that would envelop Istanbul with the stench of rotten eggs. Erdogan’s transportation minister argues that the cleaner water coming through from the Black Sea would improve the quality of the Marmara.
Along the way, there have been successes for Topcu and members of Istanbul’s Marine Life Conservation Society (MLCS). They secured protected status for the tiny outcrop of Neandros this April, stopping boats from dropping anchors or trawling for fish near its corals. They spent two summers transplanting fan-like yellow sea whips to Neandros after a nearby colony of the golden Eunicella cavolini was buried in debris from a government construction project.
“We carried them like a heart or kidney for transplant, keeping them in cold water and in the dark to prevent shock,” said Serco Eskiyan of the MLCS. It took more than 100 dives to harvest and replant 300 corals 30 metres down.
But Eskiyan, who has dived the waters off the islands since the 1970s and knows the area “like the rooms in my house”, was unable to locate the transplants in July, blinded by the sea snot that reduced visibility to a metre or two. “It looks like a different planet,” said Topcu.
A generation ago, the Marmara’s rich fauna included seahorses, poisonous scorpionfish and great white sharks, now all gone, though Eskiyan still occasionally confronts a rare angular roughshark when he hunts for “ghost nets” abandoned by industrial fishing boats that choke the corals. The MLCS has collected 32,000 square metres of the meshing since 2015.
“I have faith in the sea’s ability to renew itself from the damage people do. But now I question how much longer it can fight back,” Topcu said.
Ransomware attacks rise despite US call for clampdown on cybercriminals
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In mid-June, US president Joe Biden held talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss a recent scourge of cyber attacks against the US, including by Russian-based criminal ransomware hackers.
Biden has said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that “certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to cyber attack — period”. Nevertheless, data show that ransomware attacks continue apace, including in sectors such as healthcare and education. It is unclear whether Biden will take further action in light of this.
Ransomware, which usually involves hackers seizing an organisation’s data or computer systems and only releasing access if a ransom is paid, has long plagued businesses large and small. The first known ransomware virus, PC Cyborg, was recorded in 1989, with victims infected via floppy disk and told to send a $189 cheque to an address in Panama.
Today, these financially motivated hacks are far more sophisticated — and are proliferating fast. Attacks have quadrupled during the pandemic, SonicWall data show, partly because the shift to remote working has left staff more vulnerable than if they were connecting to more secure corporate networks.
Additionally, hackers have swapped demanding cheques for requesting hard-to-track cryptocurrencies, meaning that as the price of bitcoin has risen during the past year, the business of ransomware has become all the more lucrative. It is also easier to launch attacks with little to no technical knowhow, given the growing market for “ransomware-as-a-service”, where hackers maintain their ransomware code but rent it out to others and take a cut of any extortion payouts.
While known attacks have reached unprecedented levels, the story of what we do not know — given that there are few rules around disclosure — may be far worse. Earlier this week, Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI Cyber Division and other cyber agency officials called for mandatory reporting rules around attacks, so that accurate data can be gathered and analysed by the US government.
Small businesses with little spare resources have tended to be the hardest hit by ransomware attackers. But the matter was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after several audacious attacks on critical infrastructure such as the Colonial Pipeline, which led to fuel shortages for several days on the US east coast, the Irish health system and Brazilian meat supplier JBS. All of these attacks were believed to originate from Russia-based ransomware hackers, although the US government has accused Chinese state-backed groups of also orchestrating attacks.
The number of ransomware gangs stretches into the dozens and continues to proliferate as the economics remain so profitable. Vorndran said the FBI tracked 100 gangs, using an algorithm to rank them and the effect that each has on the economy. The largest one rakes in an estimated $200m a year in revenues, he said.
To help victims fight the gangs, a cottage industry for “ransomware negotiators” has emerged. These middlemen are tasked by victims with haggling down the ransom payments. As go-betweens, they also collect data on attacks, learning the playbooks of various groups in order to best know how to speak to them.
According to data from Coveware, the average ransom payment has fallen in the second quarter to $136,576, from more than $200,000 in the first quarter, amid an emergence of smaller ransomware groups. But in the majority of attacks — about 80 per cent — hackers are using the newer tactic of threatening to leak data as extra leverage in extorting victims. About half of these “leak threat” victims paid out in the second quarter, Coveware said.
Unfortunately, the negotiators’ services continue to be in high demand. According to data on reported attacks collated by Recorded Future, in the US there have been 10 attacks on healthcare, nine on schools and 10 on public state and local government groups during June and July this year. Despite Biden urging Putin last month to crack down on the criminal groups and warning against attacks on 16 critical entities, attacks on many of these key sectors have continued.
“The volume of targeted attacks on government organisations and enterprises that impact civilians, countries and the global economy will not end without a change in approach,” said Bill Conner, the chief executive of SonicWall.
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