Resorts, operators grapple with Europe avalanche disaster

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NEW YORK -- Avalanches in the central European Alps plagued ski resorts, skiers and U.S. operators specializing in the region.

More than a dozen fatalities had been reported in Austria, Switzerland, France and Italy during the last few weeks, and a major avalanche Feb. 23 in Galteur, Austria, killed at least 27 people.

Some Alpine roads and resorts have been temporarily shut down.

Chips Lindenmeyr, owner of Lindenmeyr Travel, a European ski tour operator in New York, said she has been trying to find alternate accommodations and transportation for clients already in Austria on ski vacations.

"I have been making a lot of phone calls and assuring clients that somehow, things will work out, and I have given them the names of people to contact. I also have been keeping in touch with the hotels and [ground] transfer companies," Lindenmeyr said.

"With one group of 22, I didn't hear about any of the problems until they came back. They had a great time, so it all depends on the people."

In another instance, a group of 22 couldn't get to into the resort town of Lech, Austria, for two days, she said.

"The hotel in Lech [transferred] them to a four-star hotel outside [nearby] Vorarlberg and gave them a champagne party there," Lindenmeyr said.

The group's bus driver stayed with them for the two days they were stranded, took them for a day of skiing one day, and then got them to Lech," she said.

Another operator, Adventures on Skis, in Westfield, Mass., said that a few of its clients were unable to get in or out of some ski resorts.

"We are changing our itineraries on a day-by-day basis according to road conditions," said ski department manager Laurie McKinnon.

She reported a group in Davos, Switzerland, whose problem was not so much danger as boredom.

"All except the beginner slopes were closed, so we tried to find other things for them to do," she said.

Despite a number of calls asking about the avalanches, McKinnon reported a "busier-than-ever" ski season.

Other operators agreed that this year has been a good one for European ski vacations, thanks to heavy snowfalls in the Alps and disappointing conditions at some U.S. ski regions.

"The [avalanches] have not affected our sales; in fact we are having our best ski season ever," said Gary Haverkamp, director of marketing operations for DER Travel Services.

"[European] resorts are doing everything they can to mark possible dangerous or avalanche areas, and they are posting guides all over the place for people to follow," he said.

Haverkamp said that in Switzerland, the road and train lines to Zermatt are closed, but were expected to reopen "by Feb. 27 at the latest."

"DER had a couple of people who could not get into Zermatt, [so] had a nice vacation in Zurich instead. They were taken care of."

Central Holidays in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., reported no cancellations and only a few inquiries as a result of the avalanches.

Swissair had no reports of people unable to get home and only one trip cancellation, a spokeswoman said.

She added that some Swiss resorts are offering helicopter service to Zermatt and Grindelwald.

A spokesman for the Austrian National Tourist office in Vienna said the risk of being affected by an avalanche depends on where you go.

"Some areas get locked in every winter for a couple of days, and that's normal," he said.

This year, in some areas such as Lech, however, the risk is high and local officials are taking precautions such as closing roads and railways.

While the situation in Lech is unpredictable, "on a scale of one to five, the chance of an avalanche is five," the spokesman said.

DER's Haverkamp added that the firm received an update from its supplier Feb. 25, "and it appears that Lech, which is accessible by tunnel, is closed off. They expect the tunnel to be open by tomorrow, and the resort will be open."

The international press has reported that some 20,000 tourists are trapped in Austria.

However, the Austrian spokesman indicated that the figure includes those who are not in avalanche areas but are affected by nearby road and highway closures.

According to Summer Seigel, director of tourism for the Rhone-Alps Tourism Board, "In France, when they temporarily close a road to clear it or take precautionary safety measures against avalanches, that doesn't [necessarily] mean that people at a nearby resort are stuck.

"There is always a certain amount of risk doing any mountain sport, but overall the risk is low," she said.

Referring to the one recent avalanche at Chamonix, France, Siegel said, "The avalanche was devastating and tragic, but we have had calls from people who thought the village was destroyed, and it is not."

Cathy Carroll and Dinah Spritzer contributed to this report.

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