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Pandemic closes ski slopes amid a perfect winter


After many years without much snow, this German winter has been a white-powdered wonderland for cold-weather sports. But amid a hard lockdown, few can enjoy it.

It’s a calm day on the picturesque Lake Schliersee in the Bavarian Alps. The parking lot on the north bank is, at most, half-full at lunchtime. A few people stroll around by the lake, and a jogger comes along from time to time. There is snow all around — a real winter, the likes of which Germany has not seen for several years.  

In recent weeks, the white splendor caused a mass rush everywhere, with day tourists flocking to the mountains to take in what they could of the landscape, even with ski lifts shut down all over the country due to coronavirus prevention measures. But by last Sunday it was tranquil on Lake Schliersee — because the next day, January 11, stronger federal government regulations were set to come into force, including a rule forcing people in many high-incidence regions to stay in a 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) radius of their homes. 

Socially distanced: Hikers take to trails in a snowy alpine landscape

The snow magically attracts people 

With its lakes and mountains, the Bavarian Oberland region is popular with tourists all year round. For residents of nearby Munich, it is a classic day-trip destination. During the pandemic, however, with urban dwellers in particular going stir-crazy, there have been a raft of problems: Blocked roads, overcrowded parking lots and toboggan slopes, misbehaving visitors and people relieving themselves in public areas, to locals’ consternation. 

Conditions like those in the Bavarian Oberland were one reason why the federal and state governments agreed on stricter virus mitigation rules in the first week of January. In addition to contact restrictions, social distancing and hygiene rules, the 15-kilometer rule was instituted. 

Bad behavior isn't the only problem 

But the situation reveals a sad paradox. Finally, after years of wishing for fresh powder on the slopes, the snow is there and nobody can take advantage of it — neither visitors nor ski lift operators, neither hoteliers nor restaurateurs. Tourism is currently not possible and is indeed dangerous because of the risk of infection: If you talk to people in the foothills of the Alps these days who earn their money with guests, it shows how tricky the situation is. 

Guests are welcome, in theory. "The influx was not the problem; it wasn't bigger than usual," says Harald Gmeiner, board member of the tourism association Alpenregion Tegernsee-Schliersee. "We are always happy to have many guests and are used to them, only there is usually no pandemic." The clinics need their capacities for COVID-19 patients and not for people who have had sledding or skiing accidents.  

On January 11, the day stronger pandemic restrictions came into force, day trippers were still crowding recreation areas in the alpine Spitzingsee area

The problem in recent weeks was not the many people — it was that the appropriate tourism infrastructure is simply not available because of pandemic restriction measures. If ski lifts are not in operation, toilets are closed, no parking attendants are on duty and restaurants are not allowed to open, then tourism is not organized and things get chaotic. "About 10% misbehave and leave their rubbish lying around," says Gmeiner. But this minority was more visible in the past few weeks, when masses descended on the area and the usual infrastructure was not operating to attend to them. 

Perfect winter sports conditions, but zero income 

Current figures from Germany’s Federal Statistical Office show that the number of overnight stays in hotels and other accommodations fell by more than 72% in November 2020 compared to the same month the year before. Bavaria has been particularly hard-hit. The state is by far the most popular holiday region in Germany; in 2019, hoteliers and restaurateurs still counted more than 100 million overnight stays there. Even in winter, when the ski areas in the German-Austrian border regions in particular attract visitors. 

But not these days. In Germany, the gondolas and lifts are shut down due to the pandemic — in contrast to Austria, where hotels are closed but ski areas have been able to open since Christmas. Ski lift operator Egid Stadler can only dream of that. He has not been able to turn on his lifts for tourists once this season, but recently he had so many people coming to park in the lot nearby that he hired a park guide, opened the toilets and in return decided to introduce a parking fee of €5. "The parking lot in front of the ski area was full, not only on the weekends. Sometimes there were 1,000 people there, from sledding families to ski tourists." 

A quiet chalet in Germany's Tegernsee-Schliersee alpine region, usually a bustling ski school

How to manage tourism sustainably 

The ski lift operator’s livelihood has nearly disappeared since the pandemic began. He has had practically no income for ten months and will have to repay the amount he took in advance sales for the season tickets. If things continue like this, and if federal aid does not arrive soon, he will go bankrupt, Stadler says. Nevertheless, he takes a more sanguine view of the events of the past few weeks than most: He says he understands that people need to get a dose of nature during the stress of the pandemic. But- he was frustrated to see large groups of people entering his ski area without social distancing or wearing masks. 

Now the region is also blocking day tourists, and anyone who comes anyway faces a fine. But Stadler says he believes the measures are the right solution given the situation. 

The past few weeks have highlighted a problem that is becoming more and more apparent even in non-pandemic times. In some places tourism takes on a dimension that both locals and nature suffer from. "The trend towards outdoor and hiking tourism means that some regions reached their capacity even before the pandemic," says Jürgen Schmude, tourism researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. In recent years, many destinations have placed particular emphasis on quantity — in other words, on attracting more and more tourists — to their own detriment. 

10 places for winter sports in Germany

At 2,962 meters (over 9,700 feet), Zugspitze is Germany's highest point. The glacier ski arena on Germany's tallest mountain attracts tourists, skiers and snowboarders alike. The glacier offers 20 kilometers of runs in easy to moderate levels.

10 places for winter sports in Germany

Nearby, skiers have dashed downhill from Kreuzeck mountain (1,651 meters) in Bavaria's Wetterstein mountain range for almost 100 years. Fun is guaranteed here at the site of the 1936 Olympic Games and the world renowned Kandahar downhill runs. It takes top athletes less than two minutes to finish the 3,300-meter stretch.

10 places for winter sports in Germany

The Allgäu Alps also offer ski arenas higher than 2,000 meters. Sometimes, at 2,224 meters, the Nebelhorn is too true to its name, which literally means fog horn. But once the fog lifts, a fantastic Alpine panorama opens up to visitors, reaching from the Dolomites to Mont Blanc.

10 places for winter sports in Germany
Wallberg Mountain near Tegernsee

Winter sports fans who like to toboggan will also find plenty of routes in Bavaria. There's a 6.5-kilometer natural sled run from Wallberg mountaintop (1,722 meters) to the valley below. Early birds are sure to have the most fun: Zipping down freshly prepared runs that aren't yet marked by bumps is easy on your back.

10 places for winter sports in Germany
Great Arber

A visit to Great Arber (1,455 meters) in the Bavarian Forest is less about concentration and speed, and more about contemplation. Hikers find that the deep snow swallows noise, all that's left is the soft crunch of boots in the snow. The low mountain range in southeastern Germany is also popular with cross-country skiers.

10 places for winter sports in Germany

Tackling the more than 100 kilometers of the Schonach-Belchen trail in the Black Forest will take ambitious cross-country skiers two days. The trail heads up Belchen Mountain (1,414 meters), situated in the south of the mountain range - definitely an alternative to the bustle of the nearby Feldberg winter sports rigmarole.

10 places for winter sports in Germany
Kahler Asten

Kahler Asten (842 meters) near Winterberg in the Sauerland region is also a popular winter sports area, in particular with northern Germans and Dutch ski fans who want to avoid the long trek down to the Alps.

10 places for winter sports in Germany

Wurmberg Mountain (971 meters) in the Harz range in Lower Saxony boasts the largest ski arena in northern Germany. The downhill run may only be 400 meters in altitude, but there is a black ski piste for expert skiers.

10 places for winter sports in Germany

Fichtelberg Mountain (1,214 meters) in the Erzgebirge is the highest mountain in eastern Germany. T-bar lifts and chair lifts take skiers to the top, or you can ride in Germany's oldest cable car - which turned 90 years old in 2014.

10 places for winter sports in Germany

When it's cold enough for snow to stay on the ground even in low altitudes, cross-country skiers are lucky. They can simply put on their gear and take off - and combine their workout with sightseeing, like these skiers swooshing past Moritzburg Palace on the Elbe River.

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In order to distribute the day trippers better in future, the area’s tourism authorities are implementing a digital platform for public use that monitors historical data showing visitor activity and comparing it to real-time data. The platform allows visitors to check how busy various spots are and reconsider their plans for the day. "If you see in Munich in the morning, for example, that all the parking spaces at Spitzingsee are full, you might take the train to Schliersee instead," says Gmeiner. 

But for now it's lockdown, while the snow falls gently on the Bavarian Alps. Egid Stadler looks sadly out of the window. "It really hurts, it would have been such a nice season." He doesn't really want to give up hope that the number of infections will drop and that he can start the ski lifts again later in the season.