Germany’s Black Forest models COVID-safe winter tourism | DW | 29.01.2021

“It’s simply bizarre,” says Eva Schwind of the day she has planned, “but also something very special!” Like many people, she and her family have been struggling with cabin fever amid the coronavirus lockdown. Now, they finally get to go do something different — they are renting a whole ski slope to themselves for a few hours. “We’ve been looking forward to it all week! I look at my kids and see the delight in their faces, even in my 20-year-old. Normality at last. Getting out of the house. Not just going for a walk, but almost like it used to be.”

They are taking advantage of a local regulation that allows the Black Forest ski slope’s operator, who has around 15 drag lifts, to open up for  families, small groups or “COVID pods.” Though most ski areas with enclosed lifts or cable cars must close, operators with open-air T-bars on their pistes can stay open here. It’s an option that allows families to enjoy the bunny slopes amid the hard lockdown that has closed nearly all non-essential businesses and activities across Germany for the past two months.

Day trips respect curfew, lockdown guidelines

This is because Germany’s southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg is going its own way as far as ski facilities are concerned. Here, ski lifts are considered open-air sports facilities that may be operated in line with coronavirus regulations.

A private piste: the Schwind family get to enjoy a few hours of skiing pleasure

“Sometimes people come here from Mannheim, Cologne or Frankfurt,” says Robert Lorenz, who runs the ski lifts on the charmingly named Schauinsland, or “Lookout Mountain.” Despite being two, three, or even five hours’ drive away, day trippers find the prospect a welcome — and safe — respite from lockdown and so make the drive. “They leave first thing in the morning, at 5 a.m., as soon as the curfew is lifted, spend an hour or two here skiing down the slope and then jet back.”

Lorenz has never experienced anything like this before — and it’s rather unlikely that he ever will again. Because this winter, everything is different. The ski lift serving as a private means of transport, floodlights only allowed until 7:30 p.m., no queuing, no waiting, no chance of collision on the slopes. 

Ski lift operator Robert Lorenz outside his business in Germany's Black Forest

Ski lift operator Robert Lorenz is glad that there is some business possible at the Rosshang ski slope

People who make a living from tourism have had to come up with some original ideas since the beginning of the pandemic if they wanted to survive. “Luckily, we had such a great summer season here in the Black Forest,” says Lorenz. “There wasn’t a single vacation home left up for rent in the whole region. The restaurants were full, people were walking single file on some hiking trails and the local retail trade was also able to make a healthy profit.

“We’re feeding off of that now, in the winter, when none of that is possible,” says the ski lift operator. Unfortunately, he and his colleagues are not helped by the interim state aid that is supposed to support businesses, self-employed people, and associations that have had to close during the pandemic. After all, they are based on the previous year’s sales — which were zero, due to last year’s mild winter, during which there was little snow. 

A woman on cross country skis moving through thick snow in the Black Forest, Germany

Those who avoid the popular hotspots can enjoy the magical winter landscape of the Black Forest all to themselves

Pandemic encourages creative ideas

The lift operators are not the only ones who have come up with creative ideas. Other service providers, like Stephanie Ketterer, are also making the best of the situation. She runs an alpaca farm near Rottweil. “The animals need food, insurance has to be paid, and somehow money has to come in,” she says as she gets the animals ready for the next hike. “People want to get out. We all have more than enough of restrictions, of being locked up at home, of working from home and attending school remotely. So a hike with alpacas out in the snow is a great change of pace.”

She had to discuss at length with local authorities so that she could offer her tours during the coronavirus pandemic. In the end, they found an acceptable method: She and her alpacas are allowed to accompany a single household on a hike together, using face masks and disinfectants, and keeping the animals between her and the family. The offer has been very well received, just like the ski lift rental. She and her alpacas are booked out every weekend. “It’s not going to make me rich, but my running costs are covered, and that’s something.”

Hiking: The original socially-distanced outdoor activity

In non-pandemic times the Black Forest’s ski slopes are usually full and its hiking trails comparatively empty, a pattern that has been reversed since the arrival of COVID-19. On recent weekends in particular, the area has been hugely popular with people coming from surrounding regions to enjoy a hike in the pristine natural beauty. This is especially the case along the Black Forest High Road that winds its way through the fairytale landscapes and on the Feldberg mount. As the highest mountain in the Black Forest, and Germany’s highest peak outside the Alps, the Feldberg is one of the most popular ski resorts in Germany.

In order to ensure safety, authorities have allowed the natural reserves to stay open but taken some precautions: closing certain roads, directing people to alternate locations, and requiring visitors to adhere to social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines at trailheads and in parking lots. 

During normal times, hordes of Germans head south for Alpine vacations or spread out along the Black Forest’s 158 ski slopes and pistes. This year, however, with travel curbs, nearly everyone is focusing on what is allowed: enjoying nature and simple pleasures closer to home. And many are discovering lesser-known places, hidden gems, and everyday destinations that hold charm and beauty aplenty.

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Credit: Deutsche Welle

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