Covid-19: Will Austria have a normal ski season this winter?

People working in the Austrian winter sports industry are hoping to attract foreign tourists this year after hotels, bars and restaurants were closed for the entire season last winter, meaning only locals could ski.

Skier in Austria
What form will the ski season take this year? (Photo by Jörg Angeli on Unsplash)

Tourism, a large part of which involves winter sports, is vital for Austria’s economy. According to the news agency Reuters, tourism makes up up five percent of the country’s total economic output.

Now, following the roll out of Covid vaccines, Green Passes and the opening up of Austria’s shops, hotels, restaurants and borders, ski lifts up to the glacier on the Kitzsteinhorn in the Salzberg region will start running on Saturday as Austria’s winter ski season begins. 

But how will the 2021/22 winter ski season balance safety with opening up again in Austria? 

Skiing will mean adhering to the 3G rule

It will only be possible to book cable cars to Austria’s mountains for people who can prove they have either been fully vaccinated, have recently recovered from the Covid-19 virus or have tested negative (the 3G rule). For those presenting a test result, the booking will only be valid for the validity of the test, after which a new test must be shown, the Kurier newspaper reports. An antigen test is only valid for 24 hours in Austria.

When travelling in enclosed ski lifts, everyone must wear hospital grade FFP2 face masks. At present there are no rules on social distancing or a maximum capacity in the lifts.

Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger has urged those wishing to enjoy a “safe and carefree” winter holiday to “get vaccinated”. 

Further rules are expected to be unveiled, and some operators are asking people booking ski passes to sign a form stating they will obey any future government regulations. 

Après ski

A challenge faced by opening up skiing again is après ski, when people go and unwind with a drink or two after a day on the slopes. Après ski bars were responsible for a large number of infections in Austria during the early days of the corona pandemic.

Those hoping to party like it’s 2019 may be in for a shock. The Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter oversees top ski resorts such as Ischgl, formerly dubbed the ‘Ibiza of the Alps’. He has stated “there will no longer be après-ski as before the pandemic” according to the news agency Reuters.

To make the après ski bars safer, the government has re-classified these as similar to night clubs (what constitutes an après -ski bar will be defined locally). Under present rules, people wishing to go to an après ski bar must show proof of vaccination or recovery or a negative PCR test (antigen tests are not valid). 

There are already plans in place to make nightclubs and après ski bars subject to a 2G rule if the numbers of patients in intensive care units in Austria rises above 300, a figure some experts believe will be reached by late October, according to broadcaster ORF. This would mean only people vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19 would be able to go to après-ski bars or nightclubs. It would not be possible to access them with a negative test.

If there are more than 400 patients in Austria’s ICUs with Covid-19, unvaccinated people will no longer be allowed to show antigen tests to access the ski slopes, but will have to show a more accurate negative PCR test. 

READ MORE: Austria mulls banning unvaccinated from cafes, restaurants and gyms if ICU situation worsens

Municipalities will also be given extra powers to impose curfews on après ski venues if the infection risk rises in specific locations. 

Will tourists want to come skiing in Austria this winter? 

The tourism commissioner of the German federal government, Thomas Bareiß,  told newspapers that Germans wanted  “to go on a carefree skiing holiday again,” at the end of September according to Der Standard newspaper. However, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently advised American citizens not to travel to Austria due to Covid-19 concerns.

READ MORE: US now advises against travel to Austria 

And according to the Austrian broadcaster ORF,  the number of bookings this winter is expected to be far below the levels recorded before the coronavirus crisis.

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Austria’s famous Dachstein glacier to be closed off for skiing this winter

Heat, rain and even Sahara sand have affected the ice in the famous Austrian Dachstein glacier, forcing authorities to close off the ski lifts this winter.

Austria's famous Dachstein glacier to be closed off for skiing this winter

Austrian authorities have decided to cancel winter skiing in the Dachstein glacier, located on the highest mountain in Styria, Austrian media reported.

“There will be no autumn or winter skiing on the Dachstein this year,” Georg Bliem, the director of Planai-Hochwurzen-Bahnen told Kleine Zeitung on Wednesday.

For years now, the glacier has been steadily melting in summer. The year 2022 has been no exception, as heat and extreme rain (and even Sahara sand) have hurt the ice structures, causing the region to become dangerous for non-experienced hikers.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

The melting ice has been particularly affecting the structures for lift operations. To operate safely, the supports of the lifts would have to be moved.

“That’s a huge effort, and we have no guarantee that it won’t need to be done again next year,” Bliem said.

On the slopes, the rock is coming through in some places and even the lift line now runs over rock, he added.

For this reason, the decision to forgo winter skiing, at least this year, has been made. But further checks will take place next year.

READ ALSO: How will climate change impact Austria?

“In the spring we will evaluate the situation,” Bliem said. 

The peak season on the Dachstein glacier is autumn when snow cannons cannot yet be fired up at lower altitudes. In Styria, the Dachstein was the only ski destination to offer skiing as early as September and October. Many professional athletes in particular had used the slopes for training runs.

Other attractions will remain open

The area has many other attractions that will remain open, the authorities highlighted. The ice palace, the famous stairs leading up to the panoramic viewpoint, and the hilltop restaurant, for example.

The area for cross-country ski trains will be larger, and ski touring crossings will continue to be possible. The park is also looking to develop a new concept for future winters, offering more hiking trails.