Swiss slopes buzz as those of neighbors sit idle in pandemic

The Swiss say they are taking reasonable action to fight the pandemic but have hardened their rules in response to criticism from neighbouring countries. (AFP)
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Updated 05 December 2020

Swiss slopes buzz as those of neighbors sit idle in pandemic

  • France and Austria keep slopes closed as European ski industry is devastated

GENEVA: Two weeks after beating COVID-19, Thierry Salamin huffs as his ski boots crunch through Swiss snow near the Matterhorn peak, readying for a downhill run with his mood as bright as his blue and fluorescent yellow ski getup and the sun overhead.

The 31-year-old real estate agent from the southwestern Swiss region of Wallis can’t believe he is skiing during a pandemic, let alone one that he personally endured — and which has driven a wedge between his country and its Alpine neighbors over where people can ski, and where they can’t.

While the coronavirus resurgence has led Austria, France, and Italy to shut or severely restrict access to their ski stations this holiday season, Switzerland has kept its slopes open — a move that has fanned grumbling about an unlevel playing field when it comes to Alpine fun.

“It’s true, we’re privileged,” said Salamin, enthusing about the “paradise” of the Zermatt slopes and gesturing over the ridgeline toward Italy. “It’s too bad that people can’t go skiing on the Italian side, because those slopes are magnificent.”

The discord among countries during the worst pandemic in a century cuts across issues of health, business, economy, culture and wellbeing. But it also violates one of the key tenets that the World Health Organization promotes to help fight COVID-19: solidarity.

The Swiss say they’re taking reasonable action to fight the coronavirus. As across much of Europe, infection counts in Switzerland spiked in late October and peaked at more than 10,000 per day on two occasions about a month ago — a high tally for the country of 8.5 million.

The authorities require masks in ski lifts and queues, and recommend hand hygiene and physical distancing measures. These seem only minor concessions to the hundreds of faithful skiers who gleefully turned out for a weekday jaunt on the Swiss slopes near the Matterhorn on Thursday.

France’s government is all but taking aim at Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, warning that any residents of France who come back from ski holidays could face virus tests and quarantine orders. The French move is aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, but it comes as some officials and business leaders in French Alpine towns have complained about unfair restrictions. 

Andorra is one of the European countries that will be hardest hit by the lack of ski tourists this winter on account of COVID-19 precautions. (AFP)

On Friday, amid such pressure, Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset announced a “hardening” of Switzerland’s rules governing ski stations. Ski areas must now receive authorizations by the cantonal, or regional, authorities by Dec. 22 to continue operating.

His ministry said trains, gondolas and cable cars in ski areas will be limited to two thirds of maximum capacity starting Wednesday. But the stepped-up restrictions are still fewer than in other countries.

Neighboring regions are seething. Just across the border from Zermatt, in Italy, the Valle d’Aosta regional council voted to defy the national government and open its ski lifts anyway, but the issue may get tied up in court.

Nicolas Rubin, mayor of the French town of Chatel, near the Swiss border, has had his city hall draped in Swiss flags to protest the directives from Paris. He told Swiss public television Wednesday he felt “no jealousy” toward Switzerland, saying Swiss officials had fully thought through their rules.

The EU — which counts Austria, France and Italy as members — has stopped short of recommending a holiday season travel ban. However, national authorities are taking precautions, leery of superspreading events such as those earlier this year at ski resorts in those three countries that helped seed devastating outbreaks in Europe.

On Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte confirmed Italian ski lifts will remain closed through Jan. 7. France is still undecided, but looking at a mid-January restart at best. Austria will allow skiing to start on Dec. 24, but will limit the capacity of ski lifts until early January.

In Zermatt, this weekend — around the time of the start of the typical high winter season — could well be pivotal to see just how much the warnings from foreign politicians, and laments from wintertime business owners abroad, will register with would-be skiers.

“Tourism is our only income, it’s our life,” said Zermatt mayor Romy Biner-Hauser in an interview.

“Nobody wants to be a hotspot, nobody wants to be a super spreader,” she said. “Where is the difference (between) doing outdoor activity ... (in) the sun, the fresh air, mountains, versus a shopping mall in a big city? And nobody has given me that answer so far.”

Zermatt tourism officials are projecting a minimum 20 percent drop in overnight stays this year. Traditionally, about half of all visitors come from Switzerland, the other half from abroad — many from far away, not just neighboring countries.

“We hope so much that the government will not lock down again and we hope that people from other countries will be able to cross the borders,” said Dave Preis, an Italian ski instructor at Zermatt. “It makes no sense to lock down the world. It means: ‘Let’s stop living’.”

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains

Updated 18 January 2021

China economy grows in 2020 as rebound from coronavirus gains

  • Growth in the three months ending in December rose to 6.5 percent over a year earlier
  • China’s quick recovery brought it closer to matching the US in economic output

BEIJING: China eked out 2.3 percent economic growth in 2020, likely becoming the only major economy to expand as shops and factories reopened relatively early from a shutdown to fight the coronavirus while the United States, Japan and Europe struggled with rising infections.
Growth in the three months ending in December rose to 6.5 percent over a year earlier as consumers returned to shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas, official data showed Monday. That was up from the previous quarter’s 4.9 percent and stronger than many forecasters expected.
In early 2020, activity contracted by 6.8 percent in the first quarter as the ruling Communist Party took the then-unprecedented step of shutting down most of its economy to fight the virus. The following quarter, China became the first major country to grow again with a 3.2 percent expansion after the party declared victory over the virus in March and allowed factories, shops and offices to reopen.
Restaurants are filling up while cinemas and retailers struggle to lure customers back. Crowds are thin at shopping malls, where guards check visitors for signs of the disease’s tell-tale fever.
Domestic tourism is reviving, though authorities have urged the public to stay home during the Lunar New Year holiday in February, normally the busiest travel season, in response to a spate of new infections in some Chinese cities.
Exports have been boosted by demand for Chinese-made masks and other medical goods.
The growing momentum “reflected improving private consumption expenditure as well as buoyant net exports,” said Rajiv Biswas of IHS Markit in a report. He said China is likely to be the only major economy to grow in 2020 while developed countries and most major emerging markets were in recession.
The economy “recovered steadily” and “living standards were ensured forcefully,” the National Bureau of Statistics said in a statement. It said the ruling party’s development goals were “accomplished better than expectation” but gave no details.
2020 was China’s weakest growth in decades and below 1990’s 3.9 percent following the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, which led to China’s international isolation.
Despite growth for the year, “it is too early to conclude that this is a full recovery,” said Iris Pang of ING in a report. “External demand has not yet fully recovered. This is a big hurdle.”
Exporters and high-tech manufacturers face uncertainty about how President-elect Joseph Biden will handle conflicts with Beijing over trade, technology and security. His predecessor, Donald Trump, hurt exporters by hiking tariffs on Chinese goods and manufacturers including telecom equipment giant Huawei by imposing curbs on access to US components and technology.
“We expect the newly elected US government will continue most of the current policies on China, at least for the first quarter,” Pang said.
The International Monetary Fund and private sector forecasters expect economic growth to rise further this year to above 8 percent.
China’s quick recovery brought it closer to matching the United States in economic output.
Total activity in 2020 was 102 trillion yuan ($15.6 trillion), according to the government. That is about 75 percent the size of the $20.8 trillion forecast by the IMF for the US economy, which is expected to shrink by 4.3 percent from 2019. The IMF estimates China will be about 90 percent of the size of the US economy by 2025, though with more than four times as many people average income will be lower.
Exports rose 3.6 percent last year despite the tariff war with Washington. Exporters took market share from foreign competitors that still faced anti-virus restrictions.
Retail spending contracted by 3.9 percent over 2019 but gained 4.6 percent in December over a year earlier as demand revived. Consumer spending recovered to above the previous year’s levels in the quarter ending in September.
Online sales of consumer goods rose 14.8 percent as millions of families who were ordered to stay home shifted to buying groceries and clothing on the Internet.
Factory output rose 2.8 percent over 2019. Activity accelerated toward the end of the year. Production rose 7.3 percent in December.
Despite travel controls imposed for some areas after new cases flared this month most of the country is unaffected.
Still, the government’s appeal to the public to avoid traditional Lunar New Year gatherings and travel might dent spending on tourism, gifts and restaurants.
Other activity might increase, however, if farms, factories and traders keep operating over the holiday, said Chaoping Zhu of JP Morgan Asset Management in a report.
“Unusually high growth rates in this quarter are likely to be seen,” said Zhu.