During 2020, we’ve all learnt a lot. Chief among the lessons have been how to think on our feet, to expect the unexpected and take personal responsibility for our behaviour. We’ve learnt that governments and scientists don’t have all the answers and that sometimes they get things wrong and – with the benefit hindsight – could have done things better.
Undoubtedly, the authorities in Verbier, the municipality of Bagnes, canton of Valais and Federal Council of Switzerland are wishing they could have handled the recent retrospective UK quarantine fiasco slightly better. It has resulted in global headlines yesterday about how hundreds of Brits did a midnight runner instead of staying caged up in hotel rooms in one of the most expensive ski resorts in the world.
The fallout from those headlines has damaged the reputation of ski resorts across the board – not just Verbier, which is already trying to claw back its tarnished image as a coronavirus hotbed.
The facts surrounding the “Verbier Midnight Express” as one of my Twitter followers just coined it, are somewhat sketchy, and ‘he-said, she-said’ never did anyone any good.
The truth is, Swiss authorities had no idea where travellers from the UK were residing when they decided to implement a retrospective quarantine on 20 December. That was the first source of friction. That they had to then rely on a mix of news, social media, text message and police action to reach those travellers made things even worse. Then, that hundreds left last weekend in the dead of night is now under serious contention — and most likely untrue, in my opinion. Where did the numbers come from? Even Simon Wiget, director of the Verbier Office du Tourisme, doesn’t know the answer.
There’s no denying the resort is popular with British skiers. Around 30 per cent of Verbier’s business is from the UK. As well as a seasonal influx of workers and holidaymakers, many Brits own second homes in Verbier or have made the resort their year-round home. It’s easily accessible, beautiful, a cool place to hang out and to ski, and you can easily get by without speaking a word of French.
Thanks to its royal and celebrity following, Verbier has long been a place to see and be seen. But overnight on 20 December, being British in Verbier was not quite so de rigueur — with extra police drafted in to apparently pounce on anyone speaking English to check on their quarantine status.
There are reports of Brits being ‘shopped’ by neighbours and a ‘difficult mood’ even before 20 December, when news broke of the new highly contagious variant of coronavirus in the UK — some people I spoke to yesterday go so far as to tell me they were made to feel like pariahs. The Swiss were scared; but let’s face it, it’s pretty scary dealing with that variant in the UK, too.
Further irritating was that Brits were told testing was not an option, only quarantine. Switzerland has excellent rapid-result testing but it was not offered – who knows why, perhaps because so little was known about the variant at that time.
Then a mix-up between a spokesman for Verbier’s governing municipality of Bagnes and a French journalist led to yesterday’s headlines that hundreds made a midnight run for the border. An exasperated mis-communication that will have lasting damage.
You couldn’t really make it up, and it’s not only the reputation of skiing and Verbier that’s tarnished here — it’s of us Brits, too. Both in and out of ski resorts.
Class, as well as Brexit, has been drawn into this whirlwind of headlines and it’s not a nice argument to see unravel. According to critics on Twitter over the past 24 hours, Much like the second home-owners who broke lockdown to spend Christmas in Cornwall, those rich enough to strap planks to their feet and quaff champagne in ski resorts like Verbier also feel they’re above the law, right?
Those who don’t ski and never intend to are arguably the worst – they find the whole saga rather funny, but the owners of businesses in Verbier don’t share their amusement. Hoteliers, ski instructors, mountain guides, event coordinators, wedding planners, bar owners, ski rental shops or homeowners who make a few bob via Airbnb all are trying – along with every other business in the world – to keep afloat and these headlines and trolling remarks have only further fuelled a raging fire.
Opinions are divided over whether anyone should be travelling during a pandemic, let alone for leisure. Is it not utterly selfish to want to go skiing or open ski resorts when we should all be keeping our heads down and getting rid of this virus? Conversely, if we lock down again entirely how many businesses will survive if and when we reach the other side?
I don’t know the answers and I don’t pretend to. I personally haven’t travelled last March, I’ve only been on two trains in the UK, because I am ‘moderately vulnerable’ and don’t feel safe enough to do so at present. Nor can I deal with the idea of being stuck somewhere. But I fully intend to get to the mountains in some shape or form before the end of the 2020/21 season – I’m lucky in that I love ski touring and that doesn’t involve lifts.
Luckily, Verbier will weather this storm, people will always want to go there, and skiers will always want to ski. I just hope that enough of the businesses we rely on for our much-needed downtime will still be there on the other side and those intent on dragging skiers’ reputation through the mud see the lasting harm their actions have.