By Giselda Vagnoni
ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has warned Italians not to ski during the Christmas holidays to help curb a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 people in Italy.
He also called on other European countries to agree on common rules for the sector to prevent cases being imported from abroad if Italy keeps its slopes closed - although neighbouring Austria has already expressed its reservations about the idea.
Italy's ski resorts earn annual revenues of about 11 billion euros ($13.06 billion), a third of which comes from the days Italians usually spend in the Alps and Dolomites at Christmas and New Year.
But Conte said this year it would not be possible "to allow holidays on the snow. We cannot afford it".
Italy reported 630 COVID 19-related deaths on Monday.Many regions are under partial lockdown, with restrictions due to stay in place until at least Dec. 3.
Shopkeepers, hotels and restaurateurs are pinning their hopes on a revival of business around the normally busy Christmas period to revive their fortunes.
To try to reopen the pistes, Italy's ski resort regions have drafted restrictions on the number of passengers that could be carried by ski lifts and on daily ski passes sold - but they still need the approval of central government.
"The protocol is one thing, but everything that revolves around holidays on the snow is uncontrollable," Conte said late on Monday in an interview with La7 television.
Valeria Ghezzi, president of the Italian lift association, told Reuters: "Conte should remember that an economy that supports entire mountain communities is at risk."
Italy is part of the European Alps along with Austria, France, Slovenia and Switzerland, which is hoping that social distancing, limits on gatherings and mask-wearing on lifts can prop up tourism without fuelling the virus.
Conte said he had held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel over a "common European protocol".
"I think it is an European problem. If Italy decided to shut down all its ski lifts without any support from France, Austria and the other countries, then Italian tourists would risk going abroad and taking the contagion back home," Conte told La7.
He did not elaborate but, according to Italian daily La Repubblica, he wants a deal with cross-border countries to keep cable cars and ski lifts closed until at least Jan. 10.
Austria, whose biggest cluster of the first wave of the pandemic was at the ski resort of Ischgl, where thousands were infected, was lukewarm about the proposals.
"If the EU does in fact force skiing areas to stay closed, that will mean costs of up to 2 billion euros. If that is what the EU really wants, it will also have to pay for it," Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel said in a statement.
A ministry spokesman said that was an estimate of the cost for roughly a month over the Christmas period.
Austrian ski resorts are closed as part of a nationwide lockdown that is due to be lifted on Dec. 7, but it is not clear what sectors of the economy will then reopen and in what order.
($1 = 0.8422 euros)
(Reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by William Maclean and Alison Williams)