The differences between Austrian and Slovenian ski resorts are anything but subtle. It has always been accepted that Austria, in direct comparison to its 24 year old neighbour, has had a good 15-20 year start when it comes to tourism infrastructure. This though is in no way a pejorative assessment of Slovenia, a country in relative terms that has only recently managed to extricate itself from a failing Yugoslavia which did far less for it than the republic of Slovenia brought to the Belgrade-dominated table.
Away from the financial problems and moves to privatise fifteen of its state-run concerns, it is nevertheless a valid way to take the fiscal temperature of a European alpine country by drilling down into the performance of its tourism sector, an area that Austria, with the possible exception of Switzerland, eclipses all of its rivals. While many ski resorts in Slovenia founder under the burden of debt, closures and a lack of interest at auctions and indeed, Dutch auctions, it is rare or perhaps unheard of for such stories to emanate from the Tyrol. The closest comparison I can recollect from viewing the offending buildings first-hand amount to the derelict Hotel Schnee Weiss in Seefeld, along with the preposterously designed Play Castle, a former casino just outside Seefeld which surely warrants a white elephant sub-category of its very own. Whilst having no desire to seek out dereliction and neglect in Austria’s ski resorts, for the purposes of this blog post I have sought(in vain) any examples that come close to the problems found in many of Slovenia’s highest profile resorts.
The ongoing issues surrounding the likes of Pokljuka, Bovec and Pohorje just wouldn’t happen in Austria. Is it purely down to an issue with snow or in many cases, the lack of it? I don’t believe so. Notwithstanding the high-altitude big hitters of Obergurgl, St. Anton, Ischgl, Galtuer and Lech, many of the resorts located in the Tyrol are relatively low-lying but do not seem to be terminally hamstrung should a poorer season than normal befall them. The Austrian tourism-machine is well oiled, with many lifts also operating throughout the summer months, usually at incredibly advantageous rates when compared to the eye-watering tariffs affixed to lift passes during the winter. At the relative ‘give away’ prices enjoyed by summer hikers it is any wonder these resorts make a profit during the warmer months, but perhaps that isn’t the issue. With the Tyrol being awash with cash during the winter it almost seems the lifts crank back into operation during May and June as part of an altruistic ‘loss leader’ exercise. Or, perhaps like many hoteliers in Obergurgl, they make so much money during the winter there is no obligation to operate in the summer; thankfully, unlike a large number of Oetztal hoteliers they nevertheless choose to do so.
A quick view of the fascinating Ski Resort Info website(www.skiresort.info) highlights in great detail, under their new lifts and cable-cars section, just how relentlessly restless resorts throughout the more developed alpine nations become when one of their neighbours builds a new lift, spa or extension to an already sprawling hotel complex. This ‘keeping up with the Johans’ as I like to call it is surely a business model with high risk attached to it, or so you would think. There seems to be an innate fear in many Austrian resorts of standing still, of not outdoing your regional or even provincial neighbour who has blinked first to update some form of resort infrastructure. It is hard to see where the process will come to a natural end when enough is deemed just that, only mismanagement(almost unheard of Austrian ski resorts) seemingly capable of clipping the wings of ambition. By contrast in Slovenia the albeit controversial 2864 Bohinj project centred upon Bohinjska Bistrica is at the time of writing seeking the final investment piece of the puzzle to bring the plans off the drawing-board into reality, heralding an end to a tortuously interminable planning process. Again, such a scenario is unheard of Austria.
Planning laws obviously vary country to country, even province to province, where regional variations of employment sectors, topography and environmental fragility come into play. The recent concerns though regarding the construction of a new Penkenbahn in Mayrhofen and, lately reported by the Tiroler Tageszeitung newspaper in relation to the Bichlalm lift south of Kitzbuehel, have served to highlight that environmental concerns are not necessarily circumnavigated but are never classed as insurmountable. No municipality in the Tyrol is ever going to wish to be branded as obstructing what is perceived to be progress, therefore placing its resorts at the mercy of all manner of plans, however frivolous and aesthetically displeasing many turn out to be. In the course of construction lifts often necessitate the removal of traditional buildings with architectural merit and ongoing commercial use, often within areas where the rural economy held sway before the advent of mass winter-sports tourism. I cannot think of an instance where lifts have had to be moved/removed to protect important Tyrolean edifices…
With the honourable exception of the Galtuer locals vetoing a proposal to build a ski-lift in the remote Jamtal region, it seems now that the ski resorts in Austria and their entrepreneurs get pretty much what they want. Unlike Slovenia money doesn’t seem to come into it and whilst it would be unfair to accuse the Tyrolean authorities of paying lip service to those with concerns over the environmental damage potentially caused by the introduction of yet more lifts and manipulated pistes through hitherto untouched forests, the ecological barriers placed in the way of would-be developers in Slovenia, such as throughout the Triglav National Park, are on balance – with due respect paid to those who say such strictures are strangling modernisation of the tourism sector – my preferred route to how new developments should be dealt with in the Alps. Many of the new lifts planned throughout the alpine regions of Europe are to replace aging cableways, a costly but safety-conscious exercise. It is though the continual addition of more and more ski lifts to already established and increasingly congested pistes that are my main concern. Whilst the good times roll such disquiet will be viewed as nothing but neo-luddism but when by consensus the saturation point has been reached, will the resorts in question finally decide to say enough is enough? I wouldn’t hold your breath.
More reading on this subject can be viewed at: