Controversy caused by the expansion of Austrian ski resorts is nothing new.

The Alpine arms race continues unabashed, consisting of resorts intra-competing with neighbouring towns and those in adjacent valleys and provinces. There surely though has to be a time, which could already be upon us, when seeking an edge over the competition could reduce the fitness of all parties. With only the same number of visitors and tourism revenue over which to squabble, the cake gets cut more thinly still by adding additional competition, but not footfall and hard currency to the overall equation.

The Arlberg, Ski Welt and Ski Circus winter sports areas have all jostled in recent years for supremacy, each adding their own unique characteristics to the table to those that are common to downhill pursuits in Austria. Whilst it is obviously important to each of the aforementioned to be regarded as top dog, the size of ski area seems at times to be the sole criterion by which it is to be judged and achieved.

It must though be kept at the forefront of all alpine expansions that the environment never wins from the creation of new pistes, towering pylons and accompanying cableways. Furthermore, an initial flurry of interest in new ski infrastructure can swamp resorts and necessitate the formation of extra car parking spaces, as well as driving the justification for more hotels and the adding of extra space to established accommodation. All of this and more undermines the environment and threatens the very reasons visitors opt to holiday in the Alps.

It is indeed disappointing that many lifts which have proven to be useful, less harmful additions to the Tirol and Salzburgerland only operate in the winter months. If their construction is justified at the formal planning stage as vital economic drivers for the local economy the sight of many lying idle between May and November is baffling and contradictory.

Am I therefore saying that to put both the aesthetic and topographical environment at risk resorts might as well justify their actions by also operating most, if not all their non-drag lifts in the summer season? Not exactly, but I fail to see how a case can be presented for a scheme’s economic benefit to outweigh the environmental impact if use all of the year round isn’t part of the plan. Similar to the utter madness in the UK that has seen a rampant oversupply of housing, predominantly on easy to develop green land, vindicated as a panacea to economic woes that allows the government to shrink the state instead of properly investing within it, the alpine regions of Austria can at times appear hysterical when attempting to push through projects whose acceptance or rejection are speciously seen as ‘make or break’ for the area in question.

Property speculators and those ceaselessly looking to locate further lifts where no more are needed are characterized by the remorseless pouring over of maps and of even reconnaissance missions that fly over land otherwise untouched by their respective industries. When will enough ever be regarded enough in Austria, with a province-wide moratorium placed on breaking new ground that allows sensible upgrading of existing infrastructure as the only scope for future development?

I was motivated to write this article by the current wrangling between rival political groups in Austria and those of conflicting ecological standpoints over the proposed connection between the Oetztal and Pitztal, two areas typified by their remoteness and attendant high altitude setting. This proposal is a potential game changer, in theory invigorating those with an eye on furthering what already exists upon Austria’s established glacier ski areas and speculators whose schemes elsewhere in the country had previously been knocked back. Although all proposals are meant to be judged on their individual merits those who are employed to assist with the obtaining of planning consent will jump all over precedents, inconsistencies and errors within the due process. With only an economic perspective being used to compel decision makers into giving ascent to the scheme, slated to cost an estimated €180 million, it becomes a straight shoot out over which is more heavily prized: more money or facilitating the deterioration of one the last untouched high alpine areas of Europe.

The devil though is very much in the detail. New, standalone developments on the Tirol’s shrinking glaciers are not permitted, although as I understand it several glaciers otherwise untouched by existing ski areas either side of it, accessed from the Mittelberg area of the Pitztal and Soelden on the Oetz valley side, would form an extension to what is already there. Crucially, this ‘middle ground’ appears to have provisionally been rezoned and now falls outside of where should be classed as untouchable. That though is far from the being the whole story.

By definition the extending of ski resorts and the terrain which serves them is prohibited if it is proposed to go beyond defined limits within municipal frontiers. If though the terrain in question falls within two separate areas of jurisdiction but outside previously defined ski resort parameters a scheme can be window-dressed as a merger of the two, in this case the Pitztal and Oetztal, allowing planning constraints to in theory be circumvented – making such schemes much harder to resist.

A merger is though in this instance a vague definition of what is proposed. The vast area at stake in effect creates a separate ski region between two already established, which quite aside from the considerable environmental impact it would cause the move into what would be a legal grey area could find that legislation by which to adjudge the scheme’s viability doesn’t actually exist. In such an outcome the redrawing of pertinent statutes to remove ambiguity will be required, although that isn’t to say that the scheme cannot succeed just because it neither falls outside or within established guidelines. Grey areas do not necessarily render such applications as null and void, but neither do they prevent the setting of potentially damaging precedents.

The opinion of the Deutscher Alpenverein(DAV) carries considerable weight. As the operator of numerous mountain huts in Austria and an umbrella organisation based within the Tirol’s biggest tourist market, its opposition to the Pitztal-Oetztal connection could be crucial in the final deliberations. Stating its belief that cableway limits have been reached – I believe this occurred quite some time ago – and the use of valley roads already choked with levels of traffic they were never built to accommodate will eventually become untenable, the DAV rightly flesh out their argument to include the wider implications that could be overlooked in what has become in some quarters ‘just’ a battle for the preservation/development of several virgin glaciers.

Having travelled on most of the cableways in the Ski Circus and Arlberg regions, and with plans this summer to use a good many of the thirty-six in the Kitzbueheler Alps, I am in danger of being branded a hypocrite. It is true that at some point everywhere, whether eventually used for housing or cableways, was once untouched by the hand of man or used for agriculture. There are and should be strong criteria for the viability and sustainability of schemes to be measured against; the merits of some will inevitably not be applicable to others. Should though plans to level an estimated 64 hectares of glacier be necessary to bring the Oetztal-Pitztal scheme to reality, and the authorities agree to this, we are not only entering the final frontier of ski development but emphatically crossing the line of what is ecologically acceptable when a compelling case to do so, other than for the rich to get even more so, hasn’t been made.

Austria’s winter sports and summer alpine market are vitally important to the country, creating vast wealth for very hardworking individuals, communities, and regions. There is though a big danger of eventually turning off those whose euros(€) are so vital to underpinning the local and national economy, especially should the natural environment prized highly by both visitors and locals continue to be undermined. If the ostensible reasons why visitors return time and again are no longer what they were, it stands to reason that custom could be take elsewhere.

The onset of Climate Change is obviously a large problem for alpine regions, but also represents a challenge to be positively embraced by diversifying regional offers beyond skiing and other winter sports. It is this most man-made of conditions that could ultimately scupper a scheme so heavily predicated upon the use of glaciers which are assumed to severely decline or completely disappear by the latter part of the current century. It is unclear to me how much of the estimated €180 million will need to be raised from external sources but even for rich Tirolean municipalities, lines of credit with banks will surely have to be established to prove that necessary funding is available.

There is therefore a lack of evidence to suggest if a glacier skiing area ultimately without its glaciers remains economically viable; in such circumstances does the scheme represent an acceptable financial risk for investors and lenders? However it is reached, I hope the correct decision is made. That of course refers to my version of what is correct, a view that somewhat differs from those with significant vested interest. If though the importance of money is placed above the environment in a setting where the latter is relied upon for the former, there is every chance that Austria will critically damage its green credentials.

Less must be more, but that doesn’t generate the sexy headlines associated with investment in fresh infrastructure and jobs. Where though a financial stimulus is felt in one resort, another is affected and will need to respond accordingly. Therein lies the problem of a never ending, unvirtuous circle that feeds off precedent and the need to ‘keep up’ with the competition. The Oetztal-Pitztal proposal is therefore a critical juncture for not only itself, but perhaps the direction of future development of its kind within the Tirol, Salzburgerland, and Carinthia.

Source material and further information:

Tiroler Tageszeitung: and

Deutscher Alpenverein: