Austria’s cableway industry wields a significant amount of power in a country so heavily reliant upon the revenue generated by the purchasing of ski and lift passes. In recent years there has increasingly been an unassailable attitude by those proposing new cable cars, extensions to existing infrastructure, and the upgrading of what is already in situ. The time-worn but never seemingly canned justification that the projected economic benefits will outweigh environmental concerns has always been a default but specious mantra uttered the world over by developers, be they property speculators intent on carving up the British countryside, or those who believe slicing the ski industry cake yet further will generate net gains for a region long after productive farmland and native forest have been sacrificed.

In some countries palms would be greased, and the backs scratched of those who have the power to reject and permit applications of this significance. There is no evidence to suggest such malfeasance is evident; in fact, the process in Austria to gain approval for schemes of this magnitude is laborious, and stringent. Nevertheless, the feeling that those proposing often highly controversial plans will ultimately have their way is never far away in what is, an unashamedly money-centric industry.

Austria’s ski sector has though become something of a paranoid monster, ceaselessly thrashing around with a restlessness redolent of an addict seeking just one more fix, never being content with what it already has. Competing with itself, resort to resort, instead of with neighbouring Switzerland and Italy, manifests this obsessional behaviour of municipalities within regions casting envious glances at each other, seeking ways in which to emulate the latest nearby developments. Not only is this damaging from an environmental perspective but also engenders an unhealthy, insatiable mindset that cannot compute when saturation point has been reached or breached.

It was therefore a pleasant surprise when a recent ruling from the Federal Administrative Court in Vienna overturned the proposed link between the Arlberg and Paznaun valleys – in effect connecting St. Anton with Kappl. Citing that the likely environmental damage would not be mitigated by the projected tourism and financial benefits to the scheme, the judgment was roundly met with contrasting reactions from those on both sides of the environmental, and economic divide. The common ground shared by both parties did though agree on the unexpected nature of the decision, although it was absurd that certain stakeholders in the Arlberg and Paznaun regions declared it a ‘black day’ for both areas. What this really means is that the arrogance of some of those involved in Austria’s winter-sports sector has taken a dent, that they now have no automatic right to expect every decision to go their way. It is indeed a black day for the already wealthy who won’t, for the time being at least, become that bit more affluent…

The users of lifts are often sportsmen and women, but also it is assumed that they appreciate the stunning vistas from the summits and ridges to which they are expeditiously transported. Furthermore, the attendant and immediate, not just the distant, flora and fauna are elemental facets to any alpine setting, without which would undermine the whole experience. There is therefore a danger of overdeveloping the Alps to a point where more and more incongruous concrete, pylons, and service roads blunts, not enhances, the attractiveness of the ‘product’. Providing more could ultimately serve only a counterproductive end, scarring mountainsides in perpetuity.

I am of the opinion that the pouring over of maps to find new opportunities for pistes should be a thing of the past. Dressing up the linking of resorts for mutual financial gain should not be a justification that gains assent by the back door; one only has to take into account the wider implications of developments: more hotels, untenable spikes in traffic numbers, and a lack of respect displayed towards their surroundings by increasing numbers of tourists, to realize that this is a subject not merely predicated on ‘just’ the loss of farmland and arboriculture.

As the battle between the green lobby and winter sports industrialists seems set to only intensify, there will inevitably be other potential revenue-streams that are instead investigated. I am now noticing an increased desire to install rodelbahn(toboggan runs) on hillsides, which although in essence should involve during construction less topographical damage to its surroundings than the creation of ski runs, there remains a permanent, year round, uglification that cannot be masked by winter’s white coat.

It is perhaps easy for me, 800 miles away from the Tirol, to espouse how its countrymen should be caring for their environment whilst attempting to strike the fine balance between the ecological features by which the region is known, and the economic realities of being heavily dependent on tourism euros(€). My riposte is though straightforward: go with what you have; wanting more will in the end be counterproductive and potentially ruinous. Upgrade what is already there, to get more people up the mountain in less time. That doesn’t have to mean more tourists swamping resorts but facilitating the ability of those already visiting to get more out of their downtime in the mountains. The inevitable passing on of the cost to visitors through the sale of lift passes will be mollified if there is more bang extracted for visitors’ bucks.

I would also recommend the looking into the feasibility of opening up of lifts in the summer only usually operated during the winter season. It has been a frustration of mine in several areas of Austria that some cableways lie dormant between May and September that could otherwise aid hikers and climbers in the way regions bend over backwards to accommodate skiers and ‘boarders in the wintertime. I believe few travellers would complain at an extra few euros on their lift passes or tourist tax to pay for this to become reality, with the Alpbach-side of the Schatzberg being just one example.

To protect what you have, not taking it for granted, isn’t the sole preserve of those tasked with shaping the Alps as a playground for visitors and residents alike. It is though a mantra that should be keenly embraced, not easily disregarded, or the real reasons why Austria is so enduringly popular will be overshadowed by the insatiable demands of those who failed to recognize when ‘enough is enough’.

Further information and source material(all from Tiroler Tageszeitung):

Kappl-St. Anton:

Lechtal Rodelbahn(coaster):