Season saved for Swiss ski resorts as quarantine is lifted

Switzerland's ski resorts breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday, as the government lifted quarantine restrictions imposed due to the Omicron variant, which had triggered an avalanche of booking cancellations.

Season saved for Swiss ski resorts as quarantine is lifted
Skiers on the slopes near the Matterhorn near Zermatt. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

The wealthy Alpine nation had slapped 10-days’ quarantine on anyone flying in from countries where the new Covid-19 variant of concern had been detected, in a bid to stop its spread. That included Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands — the three main sources of tourists heading to the Swiss slopes.

The crackdown had threatened to wreck the vital Christmas period for a seasonal sector struggling to recover from the pandemic’s impact last winter.

“It is a huge relief that the quarantine requirement, which was a de facto travel ban, has been dropped,” the Swiss tourism agency said.

READ ALL: Switzerland to scrap quarantine requirement for all arrivals

Instead, travellers must do a PCR test before arrival in Switzerland, plus a second test four to seven days later.

The tourist agency welcomed the testing-only system, saying people were already familiar with tests and “they give guests a feeling of security and remove uncertainties when planning visits”.

The quarantine requirement was first imposed on November 26, but Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset announced Friday that it was being removed from Saturday onwards.

“It no longer makes sense to maintain quarantine for people coming from countries where this variant is circulating because it’s also circulating here,” he said.

The impact of the quarantine requirement had been immediate. Planning had become “impossible”, said Sabrina Marcolin, spokeswoman for the tourist office in Zermatt, Switzerland’s busiest ski resort, in the shadow of the country’s iconic Matterhorn mountain.

“Bookings for the winter season were really great… almost back to normal” before the quarantine rule came in, she said.

It instantly affected “everybody: the ski schools, the restaurants, the ski lifts. We are a destination that pretty much lives from tourism,” she said.

50% drop in 48 hours

Ski schools saw their reservations plummet. “We lost 50 percent of our bookings in 48 hours,” said Maxime Riviera, director of the Alpine Ski School, which employs 35 instructors. “It is mainly the British who have cancelled. They are a major customer base in Zermatt.”

Others, who saw the situation becoming more complicated, also pulled out, he added.

Riviera lost 60 percent of his annual turnover last year, when in late December, quarantine was retroactively imposed on British tourists who had already arrived in Switzerland, due to the emergence of the Alpha variant.

The festive period accounts for a third of the winter season turnover, and Riviera hopes at least to break even this time around.

Three days before the government lifted the quarantine requirement, the HotellerieSuisse hotel industry body sounded the alarm about the surge in cancellations it had caused.

It too voiced its relief Friday, calling it an “important signal” for the British, Dutch and Belgian markets.

“HotellerieSuisse calls on the government not to impose any more unexpected and unnecessary travel restrictions in the coming months in order to guarantee planning security for guests and establishments in an already fragile situation,” it said.

Many British tour operators specialising in ski holidays pulled back from Swiss breaks.

Quarantine forced Inghams, a subsidiary of Hotelplan, to suspended all December departures to Switzerland. It offered customers the option to postpone their booking or cancel with a full refund.

Beforehand, bookings to Switzerland this winter had been strong and accounted for around six percent of holidays in their winter programme, the company said in a statement.

British, Belgian and Dutch tourists are “very loyal” customers to the Wallis and Bernese Oberland regions, and major resorts like Davos and Saint Moritz, “especially during the Christmas holidays”, said Andreas Zullig, HotellerieSuisse president.

They stay an average of seven to 14 nights, he added. Many hotels hope to achieve up to a quarter of their turnover during the
busy holiday season, thanks to Christmas and New Year bookings and peak rates.

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Why Italian resorts are struggling to fill jobs this summer

Italy's tourist season is expected to be back in full swing this year - but will there be enough workers to meet the demand?

Why Italian resorts are struggling to fill jobs this summer

Italy’s tourist numbers are booming, sparking hopes that the industry could see a return to something not far off pre-pandemic levels by the summer.

There’s just one catch: there aren’t nearly enough workers signing up for seasonal jobs this year to supply all that demand.

READ ALSO: Will tourism in Italy return to pre-pandemic levels this year?

“There’s a 20 percent staff shortage, the situation is dramatic,” Fulvio Griffa, president of the Italian tourist operators federation Fiepet Confesercenti, told the Repubblica news daily.

Estimates for how many workers Italy is missing this season range from 70,000 (the figure given by the small and medium enterprise federation Conflavoro PMI) to 300-350,000 (the most recent estimate from Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia, who last month quoted 250,000).

Whatever the exact number is, everyone agrees: it’s a big problem.

READ ALSO: Dining outdoors and hiking: How visitors plan to holiday in Italy this summer

Italy isn’t the only European country facing this issue. France is also short an estimated 300,000 seasonal workers this year. Spain is down 50,000 waiters, and Austria is missing 15,000 hired hands across its food and tourism sectors.

Italy’s economy, however, is particularly dependent on tourism. If the job vacancies can’t be filled and resorts are unable to meet the demand anticipated this summer, the country stands to lose an estimated  €6.5 billion.

Italy's tourism businesses are missing an estimated 20 percent of workers.
Italy’s tourism businesses are missing an estimated 20 percent of workers. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

“After two years of pandemic, it would be a sensational joke to miss out on a summer season that is expected to recover strongly due to the absence of workers,” said Vittorio Messina, president of the Assoturismo Confesercenti tourist association.

Different political factions disagree as to exactly what (and who) is to blame for the lack of interest from applicants.

READ ALSO: Travel in Italy and Covid rules this summer: what to expect

Italy’s tourism minister Massimo Garavaglia, a member of the right wing League party, has singled out the reddito di cittadinanza, or ‘citizen’s income’ social security benefit introduced by the populist Five Star Movement in 2019 for making unemployment preferable to insecure, underpaid seasonal work.

Bernabò Bocca, the president of the hoteliers association Federalberghi, agrees with him – along with large numbers of small business owners.

“What’s going to make an unemployed person come to me for 1,300 euros a month if he can stay sprawled on the beach and live off the damned citizenship income?” complained an anonymous restauranteur interviewed by the Corriere della Sera news daily.

“Before Covid, I had a stack of resumes this high on my desk in April. Now I’m forced to check emails every ten minutes hoping someone will come forward. Nothing like this had ever happened to me.” 

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Italy is experiencing a dire shortage of workers this tourist season.
Italy is experiencing a dire shortage of workers this tourist season. Photo: Andrea Pattaro / AFP.

Five Star MPs, however, argue that the focus on the unemployment benefit is a distraction from the real issues of job insecurity and irregular contracts.

There appears to be some merit to that theory. A recent survey of 1,650 seasonal workers found that only 3 percent of the people who didn’t work in the 2021 tourist season opted out due to the reddito di cittadinza.

In fact the majority (75 percent) of respondents who ended up not working over the 2021 season said they had searched for jobs but couldn’t find any openings because the Covid situation had made it too uncertain for companies to hire in advance.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

Others said the most of jobs that were advertised were only for a 2-3 month duration, half the length of the season (again, due to Covid uncertainty), making it not worth their while to relocate.

Giancarlo Banchieri, a hotelier who is also president of the Confesercenti business federation, agrees that Covid has been the main factor in pushing workers away from the industry, highlighting “the sense of precariousness that this job has taken on in the last two years: many people have abandoned it for fear of the uncertainty of a sector that has experienced a terrible time.”

The instability brought about by two years of Covid restrictions has pushed many workers away from the tourism sector.
The instability brought about by two years of Covid restrictions has pushed many workers away from the tourism sector. Photo: Andrea Pattaro / AFP.

“I said goodbye to at least seven employees, and none of them are sitting at home on the citizen’s income,” Banchieri told Repubblica. “They have all reinvented themselves elsewhere; some are plumbers, others work in the municipality.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: Mass tourism is back in Italy – but the way we travel is changing

To counteract the problem, Garavaglia has proposed three measures: increasing the numbers of visas available for seasonal workers coming from abroad; allowing people to work in summer jobs while continuing to receive 50 percent of their citizen’s income; and reintroducing a voucher system that allows casual workers to receive the same kinds of welfare and social security benefits as those on more formal contracts.

Whether these will be enough to save Italy’s 2022 tourist season remains to be seen, but at this stage industry operators will take whatever fixes are offered.

“The sector is in such a dire situation that any common sense proposals much be welcomed,” the Federalberghi president Bocca told journalists.