On Sunday the French government ordered all the country’s ski resorts to close – just one of many strict measures brought in to combat the spread of coronavirus.
It was the final nail in the coffin for the European ski season, after resorts in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Andorra and Norway pulled down the shutters just days earlier.
The news came as a shock for holidaymakers, some who had just arrived in resorts, tour operators, airlines, and local businesses, who claimed they had been reassured just hours earlier that the French ski season was safe and they’d be able to continue operating until Easter.
Britons Susan and Jock Dun are among the thousands of local business owners in the Alps who are currently riding out the storm. Based in Val d’Isère, one of the most popular resorts for British skiers and snowboarders, the pair own Snowberry, an equipment rental business.
Susan (57) and Jock (58) moved to the French resort in 1991, leaving jobs as a solicitor and partner in a legal firm, and in the family agriculture business, back in Scotland. Their two children were born in the resort, and they now call the former farming village home.
As tourists and seasonal staff have made a mass exit from the mountains the likes of Susan and Jock are left behind to pick up the pieces and compute what has been a whirlwind few weeks as they are forced into lockdown.
It’s a time of shock, frustration and worry for many, but how did events really unfold in the French resorts, which now stand still, streets empty, lifts stationary and slopes eerily quiet?
“Until about 10 days ago none of us here really realised that this was going to be such a major problem,” said Susan.
“Up until last weekend, we had had literally a handful of cancellations, but they were from people coming from further away and from countries which had already imposed travel restrictions or quarantines. The vast majority of our clients are from the UK and not only were they not cancelling, bookings were continuing to come in.”
Just as resorts in neighbouring Italy prepared to announce they were closing, now over 10 days ago, the picture in France continued to look a lot different.
“The first indication that things were getting a bit closer to home was on March 8. We were due to go to a trade show in Lyon to see all of our suppliers and the new ski equipment for next season. We were informed at about 10pm on the Sunday night that the show, planned to start the following morning, was cancelled. This was followed by Trump’s announcement of the US travel restrictions, which immediately triggered a slew of cancellations from American clients who were due to arrive in the following couple of weeks.”
But at that stage their British customers were still planning on continuing their trips; the French government stance had not changed, it was business as usual.
“On Saturday (March 14), most of the clients who had booked in advance did come and we also had a decent amount of non-booked business, so things were looking not too bad, at least for that week,” said Susan.
“We made a point that day of speaking to all our staff to reassure them and to let them know that, while we were having to look at things on a week-by-week basis, as the government had allowed tourists to arrive in their thousands all over the Alps on the Saturday, we felt that unless something sudden and serious happened they would allow the resorts to continue to operate until at least the end of the week.”
The reality was a lot different. On Saturday evening news broke that the French government was about to make a U-turn and follow the lead of their European neighbours Italy, Austria and Switzerland, closing all resorts.
Susan said: “After we closed the shop that evening, I went home and answered a few messages from friends and clients wondering what I thought about the situation and telling them that, while they probably shouldn’t book holidays a long way ahead if they had not already done so, if they were planning to come soon it would probably be alright.
“It was therefore a huge shock to see social media explode with the news that, as of that point, with not an iota of a warning, our season was over.”
The strict new measures included the forced closure of all non-essential businesses in the resort – but Susan and Jock were given time to collect their stock.
“Exceptionally, ski hire shops in Val d’Isère and other resorts were allowed to stay open for one last day to allow the public to get back all of their equipment. So, that is what we did – took back everything that had been rented out just the day before, gave everyone a full refund and got back most of the nearly 400 sets of equipment we had given out, free of charge, to tour operator staff and other people working for resort businesses. Normally this is a process that happens over a period of two or three weeks at the end of the season, so it was pretty full-on that day.”
But that was it – season done, equipment returned and visitors waved on their way, all while snow lay thick on the slopes and with spring only just in the air.
“Since the news on Sunday that the resort was to close we have all been pretty much shell shocked. Neither we nor anyone else in the resort really had any idea at all that closure for the season was so imminent or so sudden,” said Susan.
“It’s the end of the season and yet somehow it feels really different. Usually by the beginning of May everyone’s ready for the end. Obviously that’s not the case this time. On Sunday, in particular, it was still pretty busy in the main street but things felt weird, even though it was hard to put my finger on exactly what. Then I realised that, although there were loads of people in the street, no one was wearing ski clothes or carrying skis.”
While many British skiers and snowboarders now work out how, and if, they can get a refund on their holiday, and seasonal staff attempt to travel back to the UK, the likes of Susan and Jock must come to terms with what this means for their business.
“What is really important for people to understand is that the costs of running a business up here in Val d’Isère are enormous and most of us work for the first two thirds of the season just to cover our operating costs. It’s only in the last six weeks or so of the season that we make any profit. Once the resort closes down for the winter season that’s it until next December.”
“There has been criticism of the resorts in the press and social media for apparently being greedy and not closing sooner and I have to say that we and most other people here are quite hurt and offended by that. What people need to realise is that each individual resort is a community of small businesses and individual self-employed people doing what they thought was right for the locals as well as for the tourists.”
While Susan isn’t worried about the future of Snowberry – they’ve been open for 30 years and are in a secure position financially – there are concerns for others in the community.
“We have a lot of friends who are really, really vulnerable and that’s what upsets us – independent instructors who are single parents with a couple of young children, newish businesses already struggling to pay horrific rents and staff costs, long established family businesses of all sorts that have just about being getting by for years but won’t be able to cope with this.”
These are unprecedented times for companies in the travel industry and the future remains uncertain for both customers and businesses alike. For now, Susan and Jock are among those who have stayed in resorts as France now goes into lockdown. The government outlined new measures on March 16, including restricting the movement of people to journeys that are absolutely necessary for 15 days.
“It’s mostly just locals like ourselves (French or Brits) in resort now. There are some seasonal staff, including a few of our own who have decided that if they are going to be locked up they would rather be locked up here than back in the UK and a few other people who didn’t really organize themselves to get out yet and might have left it too late.”
The mass evacuation of the Alps has caused chaos on the roads and at airports, Susan added: “At the airport they were only letting you in if you had a boarding pass for a flight that day. A couple of our staff went down to be sure they got there before their flight the following day. Fortunately they managed to find a cheap hotel but others who were trying to get home ended up having to sleep outside the airport.
“We have also been helping a lot of young staff, not just our own, work out how to get back home and it seems like a lot of them see us as a surrogate Mum and Dad.”
While providing support and even writing to the local mayor, on behalf of the British community, asking for clarity on the restrictions, Susan and Jock are busy refunding and contacting clients, a task neither expected to be doing just a few weeks ago.
“We have heard that some other hire shops or agencies are refusing to refund, but we feel quite strongly that the only ethical and honest way to do it is to refund, even though it is costing us a frightening amount of money. We feel that they have enough to worry about right now without having to wonder if they are going to get this money back as well,” Susan said.
“Right now we’re still closing down the shop. We are allowed to go to work if we can’t work from home. After we’ve finished the close-down admin, if we’re allowed to cycle we’ll get our bikes out, otherwise we have a static trainer in the house. There will be plenty of time for a good spring clean and our dog is going to get lots of walking, which is good because she could do with losing a bit of weight.”
Whether they’ll be able to do all this remains unclear. “We now all have to carry papers with us wherever we go confirming the reason we are out. We have already heard of people in other resorts being fined on the spot for being out without their papers or being escorted back home again by the police. The first fine is €38 and it goes up for repeated offences.”
Following reports people were still using the slopes, ski touring, walking up the mountain, cross country skiing and snowshoeing are all now officially banned in France, with fine of €135 if you are caught. But despite challenges, as if often the case with outdoorsy-types, Susan and Jock are bravely ready to face whatever might come their way and are using the opportunity to spend some well earnt time in the mountains.
“Quite apart from the fact that this isn’t a bad place to be locked down it is home for us. Our two children were both born here. They both came back at the weekend so it will be good to spend some quality time together. As for food, unlike the UK there is no danger of running out of supplies up here – the supermarkets have enough stock for 30,000 tourists each week, for the next month, so I think the couple of thousand of us left here will be fine.”