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In the ‘Ibiza of the Alps,’ ski season is on but apres-ski is canceled

A popular part of European ski season for some tourists is gone this year: the partying

(Woody Harrington/For The Washington Post)
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The Austrian state of Tyrol, which borders Italy, Germany and Switzerland, is known as “the Ibiza of the Alps.” Its resorts and lodge-style bars draw tourists for both its world-renowned skiing and its apres-ski (“after-ski”) socializing — the latter of which, during a normal winter, can run well into the early hours of the morning, as crowds pack into bars, hoist beers around firepits and hop from champagne lounges to nightclubs.

But this past winter, four civil lawsuits filed against Austrian officials allege, such partying in Tyrol led to thousands of coronavirus infections in Europe. And so, for this ski season, Austrian leaders banned rowdy apres-ski activities outright.

Which leaves iconic Tyrol, following its recent second wave of cases, having to improvise to keep skiers happy.

“Apres-ski in the usual form will not take place this winter,” said Sarah Ennemoser, a spokesperson for the Soelden, Austria, tourism board, and the restrictions make that clear: All indoor and outdoor dining this winter will only be allowed at seated tables, masks are required until parties are seated, restaurants must close by 1 a.m., and group sizes will be limited to capacities that allow for social distancing.

In response, Ennemoser said, some restaurants and bars are planning to offer alternatives to their usual bar setup, such as turning them into food-service areas or more “subtle” coffee lounges.

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Other establishments, primarily nightclubs, have said they won’t reopen under the new rules or are waiting to see whether the rules loosen, allowing them to reopen as bars.

“Forecasts for winter are difficult,” Ennemoser said. But “the summer of 2020 showed us that people’s longing for the mountains is unbroken.”

Bernhard Zangerl, the owner of popular Tyrol bar Kuhstall, hopes so. Zangerl says his business lost about 30 percent of its typical income last ski season because of the pandemic, and he expects a 50 percent loss this season with the new regulations in place. He’s planning to keep Kuhstall closed until the ski season begins in November and then reopen with reduced hours, closing by a much earlier 10 p.m., as currently required in Tyrol.

“With covid, tourism will suffer the most under the effects of virus," Zangerl said. “We can only hope that there will be a vaccine soon so we can get back to our regular life. Otherwise, these are dark times for the worldwide tourism.”

Resort areas outside Tyrol report similar challenges. In the city of Salzburg, along the German border, “long partying in crowded bars and with loud music is simply not recommended this winter,” said Salzburg Tourism CEO Leo Bauernberger. “This will be counteracted, among other things, by an earlier closing time and other measures, such as ensuring that consumption in restaurants and bars is only possible while seated and with the appropriate distance between tables.”

Austria’s prime Alps skiing, importantly, remains more or less the same — albeit with broad social distancing and mask requirements (including on mountain gondolas and chairlifts) in effect.

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According to Isabell Parth, a spokesperson for Tyrol’s Ischgl ski resort area, where Kuhstall and other apres-ski bars are located, “the main booking criteria" for a vacation in Ischgl is the skiing, not the partying.

“Skiing is a great experience, and people are looking forward to skiing,” Parth said. “In this respect, we are looking forward to the start of the winter season on November 26th.”

And by that point, she said, a number of safety measures will have long been in place, after Ischgl was identified as a hotbed in the early days of the pandemic, when Austrian officials did not impose restrictions on gatherings or bars.

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Now, Parth explained, Ischgl hotels have “devised a health management system that goes far beyond the official requirements,” including enhanced cleanings, ongoing testing of employees, monitoring local sewage for covid-19 levels that would suggest an outbreak, and a requirement that hotel guests provide proof of a negative test.

It will not be the normal travel experience, all acknowledge. But Austrian businesses and tourism officials believe it will be, at least for this year, enough.

“Due to the vastness of the ski areas, efficient cable cars and the possibility of many alternative activities [like] cross-country skiing, tobogganing, ski tours, winter hiking, ice skating ... we believe that guests can spend a winter holiday [here] as they wish,” Ennemosser said. “Even in 2020.”

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