Canadian ski resorts brace for changes during COVID-19

Photo courtesy of Harry Beugelink/Shutterstock

For many Canadians, winter’s first snowfall means it’s time to hit the slopes. Each year millions of skiers and snowboarders flock to Canada’s ski resorts to enjoy the winter season but, due to safety concerns and travel restrictions in relation to COVID-19, this year won’t be so typical.

In accordance with public health recommendations, the Canadian Ski Council released national guidelines, Ski Well, Be Well, to help resorts adjust to the “new norm.” Recommendations include the implementation of a variety of health safety practices, such as enforcing physical distancing measures, reducing lift tickets, reducing chairlift capacity, and requiring face masks.

“It’s obviously going to look a lot different this year, but our guidelines give resorts some ideas for how to tackle the season effectively,” said Paul Pinchbeck, president of the Canadian Ski Council (CSC). He said having a governing body like the CSC has allowed for a free exchange of communication and shared ideas, both nationally and internationally.

“Our biggest advantage has been our close ties to Australia and New Zealand. They were just opening for the season during the peak of COVID-19 restrictions in Canada, so we were able to learn quite a bit about how to properly and safely conduct business,” Paul said, noting that this year’s hike and mountain bike season demonstrated the widespread demand and interest in outdoor activities among Canadians.

Luckily, both biking and skiing are solo sports and are generally considered a low-transmission activity. Most resorts have imposed an “arrive together, ride together” system for lifts and operators will enforce a two-metre gap between groups in line. The challenge, Pinchbeck said, will be solo skiers.

“Singles lines will be a bit more complicated this year. That’s really the great unknown at this point,” Pinchbeck said, adding it will be up to individual resorts to determine how to best accommodate all visitors.

One of the biggest changes will be in chalets, rental shops, and other indoor spaces—which means, to many ski enthusiasts’ chagrin, Après Ski will likely be limited this year. Many resorts have constructed indoor/outdoor warming areas, equipped with external heating, food, and beverage stations, as well as fire pits and portable restrooms.

Capacity will also be capped this year. Operators encourage anyone planning a ski trip to book accommodations and tickets well in advance. Pinchbeck explained that, while numbers vary by resort, the CSC is expecting a 20 to 35 per cent reduction in the overall number of tickets available this season. “Season passes and pre-ordered tickets are off the charts right now, in some cases 30 to 35 per cent ahead [compared to previous years].”

This increase in ticket sales is great news for the local economy, which took a large hit last season when operations were halted in March.

Each year, Canada plays host to 20.5 million skier visits but, due to the March mountain closures, the 2019-2020 season saw only 17.5 million visits; 3 million less than the average. Pinchbeck said most of the resort’s March visitors tend to be domestic travellers on spring break or holidays; most of the international tourism often concludes in February. Conversely, it will be international visitors unable to visit this year that will result in negative economic impacts.

“Canada’s destination resorts are going to miss out on 3.1. million skier visits that usually come from offshores,” Paul said. “We don’t anticipate any European or Australian travel this year, nor are we expecting the border situation to change any time soon, so what we are doing instead is inviting Canadians to explore these destination resorts.”

While ski season in Canada may look a little different this year, most resorts have opened their doors and are looking forward to the season. “Whether it’s members of the public works years and snowboarders, we’re in this together,” Paul said.

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