Once ski-mad Austria split on pistes open in lockdown

Semmering (Austria) (AFP) –


On the surface, the Austrian ski resort of Semmering looks to have adapted well to the coronavirus pandemic.

Loudspeakers exhort skiers lining up in orderly queues to wear FFP2 masks and respect distancing measures.

But whatever the precautions, the fact that some Austrians are skiing at all has prompted the ire of others stuck indoors during the country's third coronavirus lockdown, despite the country's reputation as a "ski nation".

Among those hitting the pistes is businessman Robert Buchmeyer, an avid skier since he was six.

With hotels still shut to all but businesses travellers, he had to scrap his annual week-long ski vacation.

He has instead turned to day trips to some of the country's 250 ski resorts, always equipped with the FFP2 mask now mandatory on lifts.

"It's good for one's health, being outdoors in the fresh air, and it's not like there's much else we can do," Buchmeyer told AFP, the clasp of his ski boots snapping in the parking lot of the historic ski town of Semmering, nestled on the easternmost reaches of the Alps an hour from Vienna.

Images of cramped queues for lifts at resorts and virus clusters at ski spots have troubled many since they first opened.

The Alpine fun has outraged urbanites homeschooling their children in small apartments and isolated from their friends and family.

- Emotional decision -

"It's really become massively divisive," says former Olympic skier and retired skiing educator Nicola Werdenigg.

"Skiing has long been used to form the national identity, and right now, if people are rejoicing over how great skiing is, while a mother with three kids is forced to stay inside her apartment and can't even go to the zoo, of course that hurts and makes people angry," she says.

Werdenigg says she won't ski this winter to show solidarity -- a decision she would have also expected politicians to impose across the European Union.

In contrast to other ski destinations like France which took a harder line, Austria did allow its lifts to reopen for locals on Christmas Eve.

Many suspect that economic considerations played into the decision to keep lifts open.

The politically well-connected ski industry generates around 3 percent of national GDP, according to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research.

But the decision was also a deeply emotional one, says Rudolf Muellner, a sport historian at the University of Vienna.

After Austria was transformed from a major empire to a rump state by the shocks of the 20th century, Muellner says skiing gave the country "the chance to present itself on a world stage", becoming an "engine of identity".

Post-war Austria established dominance in the sport and a rapidly growing middle class flocked to resorts to emulate daredevil professionals.

Teenage girls decorated their bedrooms with life-size posters of skiers, who could look forward to post-retirement reincarnations as popular singers, movie stars or TV hosts.

- 'Ski-bashing' -

By the 1990s, two-thirds of Austrians skied on a regular basis. Today, three decades on, it's only one-third, according to figures from the Institute of Leisure and Tourism Research.

Increasing ticket prices, more leisure options, and an awareness of the environmental damage the industry causes have turned many off the sport.

The head of the institute Peter Zellman says the recent bout of "ski-bashing" will only further damage the sport's image.

And not all ski destinations are pleased with the government's actions either.

While eastern resorts like Semmering can attract skiers from Vienna and its densely populated suburbs, in the west, about half of all skiers typically come from Germany.

Without foreign tourists, slopes are largely deserted. Operating them would mean heavy losses.

Already, several ski lifts there have decided to close.

They include Ischgl, scene of a notorious outbreak during the pandemic's first wave which led to thousands of international skiers getting infected.

"Essentially, winter tourism and sports got cancelled, and that's an economic catastrophe which we will only begin to grasp in half a year's time," Zellmann says.

While Zellmann proposes allowing hotels and restaurants to reopen under strict regulations as well -- a similar path to the one neighbouring Switzerland has taken -- many skiers say they understand the anger of some of their compatriots.

"There is a certain unfairness," says 32-year-old teacher Tanja, who was looking forward to hitting Semmering's slopes with her partner.

She says she feels for her students and their parents stuck at home and admits that closing the lifts might help restore a sense of unity in the country.

"But maybe during a pandemic, there is no fairness," she adds.