The French government on Thursday said winter sport resorts are free to open for the Christmas holiday season but ski lifts will have to remain shut, prompting bafflement from players in the sector over an "incomprehensible" decision.

President Emmanuel Macron warned Tuesday that coronavirus risks made it "impossible" to allow winter sports to resume quickly, adding he hoped that restrictions could be lifted in January.

France's 350 ski resorts have been up in arms over the decision, saying the weeks around Christmas and New Year are crucial for their survival as they account for up to a quarter of their annual revenues.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said mountain holidays were still on the cards but downhill skiing -- by far the most popular pastime for crowds of French and foreign skiers in Alpine and Pyrenees resorts -- was effectively ruled out.

Hotels will be open with the national lockdown due to be lifted on December 15. But in accordance with national guidelines, bars and restaurants will remain shut until January at the earliest.

- Enjoy 'clean air' -

"Naturally, everybody is free to travel to resorts to enjoy the clean air of our beautiful mountains, and the shops which will be open, although bars and restaurants won't be," Castex told a news conference.

"But all ski lifts and collective infrastructures will be closed to the public," he said.

Cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoe hikes are among snow activities that do not usually require mechanical lifts.

The decision "is totally incomprehensible" said Jean-Luc Boch, head of the Alpine mayors' association ANMSM.

"400 people on a Paris metro won't get infected, but four people on a ski lift will?," he asked.

Less Covid risk than on the metro? / © AFP

"At least they should be upfront about wanting to kill off the resorts," Boch said of the government.

DSF, the company operating ski lifts in 250 resorts, said it was an "aberration" to open stations while keeping lifts closed. "It's an aberration because skiing is an outdoor activity," DSF president Alexandre Maulin told AFP.

He said "85 to 90 percent of people travel to the mountains to ski", and that expected mass cancellations could cost the sector up to 30 percent of its usual business.

France's winter sport sector says it generates some 11 billion euros ($13 billion) in revenues per year and employs 120,000 people during the season.

The Haute-Savoie region in the French Alps has reported the highest number of virus infections per 100,000 people in the entire country, followed by the neighbouring Savoie region.

- 'Act of solidarity' -

According to national health authorities, the second virus wave reached its peak last week, with numbers of new infections, new hospital admissions and new intensive care patients all declining, while death figures have stabilised.

Slopes may reopen in January, France says / © AFP

But Macron warned that "if we don't want a third lockdown, we must intensify our efforts".

Castex said the government was consulting with its EU partners to coordinate reopening dates for ski resorts.

Austria, Germany and Italy rank alongside France as top skiing destinations among EU members.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told AFP during a visit to Rome that it was "an act of solidarity to take similar decisions in areas where there are big financial stakes, and also big public health stakes".

Neighbouring Germany said Wednesday it will seek a deal with European partners to close ski slopes through to early January, setting it on a collision course with resort operators, as well as Austria.

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