Promoting responsible tourism: what does this increasingly nebulous strapline now represent? Are we expecting responsible tourism to be defined by policies outlined by regional/national tourism associations – or shaped by the actions of those for whom the industry caters?

In keeping with many strands of today’s society tourists, without guidance or ordinance, are content to push the boundaries to suit their own ends, blurring the very lines of acceptability from a position that a law is only a law if it suits the individual. Without restrictions to behaviour that otherwise could have repercussions long after guests have returned home, there now exists a liberal interpretation of just what is acceptable, especially should local bylaws get in the way of visitors behaving as they please.

It is generally accepted that the vast majority of tourists cannot be expected en masse to adhere to local laws and customs without enforcement designed to preserve the very reasons for a location’s popularity. Responsibility therefore falls upon tourist associations and regional governments to lead the way, to set an example by not only crafting and enforcing relevant legislation but practicing what they preach. I fear in the Austrian Tirol those tasked with planning, environmental protection, and enforcement are now undermining and placing at risk a region synonymous with countless alpine vistas – all in the name of drawing in a few euros more. A double jeopardy of unsympathetic developments predicated on attracting unsustainable levels of visitors are in actuality defacing landscapes that run the risk of no longer retaining their cachet held so dear by generations of hikers, skiers, and alpinists.

For several years it has been my opinion that Austria’s unchecked but unhealthy obsession with alpine-based developments has long since breached saturation point. All cableways in time need to be renewed, updating the old for new on an existing footprint. It though far from stops there. Further and further incursions into mountainsides, through forests and prime farmland bring more gondolas, often justified by specious rhetoric that linking up resorts from the next valley, creating larger ski areas, financially benefits all parties by giving guests more piste variety. Much like in the UK where predatory housing developers scour land, often from helicopters, in borough’s not insulated by a robust and adopted Local Plan, there are seemingly those in Austria who are tasked to find locations to create more and more of what there already is. Rather than for the betterment of neighbouring resorts and valleys, bare naked greed takes over to create schemes designed just because they can be, rather than because a blatantly obvious need has been identified.

It is doubtful that pressure from the whims of tourists drives development, however much lift companies like to insist they are only catering for what has been demanded. One recent sickening example of man’s indifference to the environment on whose cooperation it so relies occurred in Kitzbuehel, home of the formidable Hahnenkamm downhill race. Creating a thin isthmus of artificial snow incongruously set against autumnal green and brown landscape, to feed an apparent but highly questionable demand from skiers, is a grotesque microcosm of the prevailing wind now bitterly blowing through the Tirol. Dressed up as satiating demand, but in reality the scheme has driven a want for those impatient to wait until December to hit the pistes, as used to be the norm. One cannot necessarily limit the start of a winter sports season should adequate amounts of natural snow accumulate, but creating an artificial environment during autumn sets an appalling precedent highlighting that nowhere is immune from today’s ‘anything goes’ mentality.

Several proposals for new cableways have created significant column inches of late, and although this is nothing new in the Tirol and to a slightly lesser extent in the neighbouring province of Salzburgerland, an almost desperate desire to compete and go one better than other resorts in effect sees this form of tourism competing with itself, instead of its natural alpine rivals Switzerland and Italy. The excesses in the industry are though far from restricted to mountainside pylons, cableways, and associated infrastructure. On arriving at Innsbruck’s Kranebitten Airport well-heeled travellers heading for the Oetztal can now avoid the 90 minute road journey by opting to quite literally land in style, on Hochgurgl’s own helipad. Rules outlawing tourist flights in the Tirol have been successfully circumvented as, wait for it, the helipad situated in the purpose-built satellite resort is classed as an airfield. Airfield to airfield transportation is therefore permitted, and not designated as tourist traffic…

It is though a proposed development in the Wildschoenau village of Oberau that provokes within me the greatest ire and sadness. Translated as wild and beautiful, the valley more than lives up to its billing without a hint of hyperbole or subjectivity. Resplendent in its simplicity where tourism and the valley’s ecological sensibilities successfully coexist, the Wildschoenau has seen few developments over the years to undermine what Shakespeare cautioned against in King Lear as “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”. The hideous prospect of a concatenation of leisure pursuits – adventure golf, play lake, artificial ice rink and go-kart track – is barely imaginable in the project’s intended locus, a serene, pristine and farmed hillside whose incline will be exploited with an all year round toboggan run – marketed with a disingenuously sympathetic moniker as an Alpine Coaster. Such a contrived facility, so utterly inharmonious with its surroundings, is sadly more akin to a generic concession found in many alpine resorts and represents a missed opportunity for an imaginative, unique attraction to promote the Wildschoenau’s understated virtues. Better still would be for nothing to be built in this location, rather than insisting that such a scheme will satisfy nonexistent demand.

In its attempts to drive demand for dubiously conceived attractions with little merit or originality, the Tirol will chase away those who visit to appreciate a symbiotic relationship between realistic, sustainable tourism and the fragile environment on which it depends. Tawdry projects entirely dissonant with their surroundings and the expectations of guests, typically more suited to the Wildschoenau’s gentility than the overly developed and ‘full on’ image promoted in some of its other valleys, will not only change characteristics redolent with certain resorts but in time alter the habits of regular patrons. The further development of cableways, far from complementing existing, sustainable gondolas and chairlifts will only cut the cake a further way, ensuring where ephemeral financial gain is achieved in one area, a marked downturn is felt somewhere else. In turn this only serves to drive resorts perceived to be underachieving to broaden their own range of facilities and lifts, at the expense of another, sending a developmental and financial merry go round perpetually spiralling out of control.

It is only right that resorts within the Tirol benefit from a large degree of unilateral autonomy in shaping their destinies, a far more robust framework of criteria needs to be implemented from the provincial or central government, detailing which projects are necessary, and those that are superfluous through pointlessness and crucially, the environmental price being one too high to pay. In a highly subjective world where truth, let alone opinion is relative it will though be akin to fitting a camel through an eye of a needle for consensus to be reached over what should not be built amongst some of Austria’s finest scenery. While unsubstantiated financial projections promise nothing but riches and success, those with the casting vote will continue to go weak at the knees and reaffirm that the ringing of tills, not the going above and beyond to jealously guard its natural landscape, is the benchmark that holds sway for sustainable and responsible tourism.

Source material and further information:

Tiroler Tageszeitung: