* Skiing a contentious issue during the Covid-19 pandemic

* Some countries have shuttered ski resorts

* France aims to prevent cross-border trips to ski

Skiers hit the slopes of Catalonia on Monday for the first time this season after the Spanish region eased coronavirus restrictions that had prevented people leaving their home municipality.

“The important thing is to say that from today you can ski in Spain,” said May Peus Espana, head of Spain’s winter sports federation. “Spanish snowsports are embarking on what is doubtless going to be an excellent season.”

Skiing has become a contentious issue across Europe this winter, with countries including France, Germany and Italy shuttering resorts to avoid a repeat of last season when stations became infection hotspots.

Alongside Switzerland and Austria, Spain is one of the few European countries that is allowing its slopes to reopen.

At Catalonia’s Baqueira-Beret, an upmarket resort favoured by the Spanish royal family, the first to arrive were greeted by blue skies and fresh snow.

“Honestly it’s been several years since a season kicked off with such good snow,” said ski instructor Anthony, who did not give his last name.

Despite the conditions, Baqueira was quiet on Monday morning but Commercial Director Xavi Ubeira was optimistic more customers would come later in the season.

“February is a very important month, as it is when France has winter holidays,” he said.

Perched in Catalonia’s remote Aran valley, just 10 km (six miles) from the border with France, Baqueira is increasingly reliant on French tourism, Ubeira said.

But wary of sparking new Covid-19 outbreaks, France will make random checks to deter people from crossing the border to ski.

Besides Baqueira, Catalonia’s publicly owned network of resorts also opened on Monday. At Masella, a small station popular with Barcelona residents, chairlifts were filling up, though the slopes looked far from reaching capacity.

In the neighbouring region of Aragon, ski-resort operator Aramon said it planned to open its four stations from December 23, while Andalusia’s Sierra Nevada will open on December 18.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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