Austria’s government appears to have bowed to pressure from Germany, France and Italy and will ban skiing holidays over the Christmas break in an attempt to control the coronavirus pandemic, Austrian media is reporting.
The decision, expected to be officially announced on Wednesday, follows heated disagreements between Berlin and Vienna.
On Tuesday morning, Austria’s tourist minister accused the German government of interfering in its domestic affairs after Angela Merkel said she had wanted a ban on skiing holidays. The chancellor secured the backing of the Italian and French governments as well as the leaders of the 16 German states.
According to initial reports, Austrian resorts, including hotels, restaurants and ski schools will be closed into January. In some resorts, ski lifts are expected to stay open but tourists will be told to stay away.
Merkel said last week she would seek an alliance within Europe to support her efforts for ski resorts to close until the new year at least, amid fears of a repeat of events last winter when Austrian resorts in particular proved to be a breeding ground for the virus.
She admitted that strong resistance from Austria meant it would be hard to find an “easy solution”.
Elisabeth Köstinger, Austria’s tourism minister, had said in an interview with Bavarian broadcasting that her country had no intention of abiding by any restrictions.
“We will not let another country stipulate when and what we will open,” she said, “just as we would also never offer the suggestion to Germany that it has to, for example, close its schools or hairdressers”.
Köstinger said people had “had an extremely demanding year” and were desperate to “get out of the cities, to relax and enjoy sport” after months of lockdown restrictions. Skiing “should not be turned into a scapegoat” for the virus’s spread, she added.
Switzerland has also been against the closure of resorts, like Austria fearing significant economic harm.
An independent commission found in October that Austrian national and local authorities had made “momentous miscalculations” over their handling of the outbreak last March, leading to possibly tens of thousands of tourists catching the virus and taking it back to their home countries.
Ischgl in the Tirol was highlighted as the biggest hotspot, and identified as the “ground zero” of the first wave of the virus in Europe.
On Monday, the Austrian ski association (ÖSV) wrote an open letter to the government urging it not to give in to mounting pressure from Germany to delay the season’s start.
“With growing concern we are registering an international campaign against winter sport, which is being led by leading political decision-makers in neighbouring lands,” the association’s president, Peter Schröcksnadel, wrote.
He said winter tourism was being “demonised” to cover up for wider political mistakes over the management of the crisis, insisting that the argument for a ban was “not evidence-based” and that skiing was being wrongly equated with “party tourism and unbridled aprés ski”. He urged the Austrian government “not to bow to pressure from Berlin, Munich, Rome and Paris”.
Franco Locatelli, the president of the Italian health council, told the newspaper La Stampa that if ski resorts were to operate, those who visited should be obliged to “isolate on their return for the sake of the general public”.
Italy’s government is due to decide on Tuesday on restrictions at its ski resorts. They are expected to close, after the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, last week pleaded with Italian skiers to stay at home and urged Europe to agree on a joint approach.
“If Italy closes its lifts without support from France, Austria and others, Italians could go abroad and bring the disease back,” he said.
The foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, said last week that closing resorts was an effective and obvious way to reduce mass gatherings and to save lives.
“Those who cannot ski are not victims,” he told the TV station Rete 4. “This discussion about winter holidays is surreal. We need to make sacrifices in order to conquer this virus.”
A survey in Germany showed that the majority of citizens were in favour of closing European ski resorts. Almost 74% of those questioned by the polling institute Civey said it was either “obvious” or “preferable” to close the resorts to control the virus’s spread.