Whilst not yet amounting to a charm offensive those ‘pro’ the development of a link between the Pitz and Oetz valleys in the Austrian Tirol have begun to counter the many arguments against the scheme, whose proponents have up to this point had exclusive use of the floor.

The Pitztal has long been seen as a valley that has lagged behind other Austrian high alpine regions, if only because that in the minds of many who live within its wild and remote environs and those tasked with bringing cableways to fruition, it lacks the extensive network of winter sports infrastructure ‘enjoyed’ by the likes of the Zillertal, Stubaital, the Kitzbuheler Alps, and indeed its neighbour, the Oetztal.

Lacking nothing in comparison in respect of the rugged, raw beauty of its landscape the Pitztal is nevertheless seen as an underdeveloped, not undeveloped, final frontier for those keen to perpetuate the myth that the further uglification of the Alps is necessary, for its ultimate selling points to be remorselessly exploited. Instead of focusing on the individual characteristics of the area, and therefore the obvious environmental, aesthetic, and moral constraints, an attitude of ‘they have it, why shouldn’t we’ seems to override location-specific sensibilities.

An argument that other areas, including the Oetztal, have long since passed the threshold of overdevelopment and have in effect been destroyed has also recently been expounded. Similar to insisting that an already busy road operating beyond its realistic capacity will not be made much worse than it already is by adding additional traffic from a planned, adjacent housing scheme, a counter argument that many areas of the Austrian Alps are overdeveloped but by reaching that dubious milestone on which many have got very rich, there are those in the Pitztal who are aggrieved to have missed out on the (white) gold rush. It is contended that other valleys and individuals within them have prospered from their respective majestic but fragile surroundings, so why shouldn’t they?

Many wrongs of course do not make a right. The mistakes of the past cannot be rectified but at least be learned from; this though isn’t an argument which will hold much water for those ‘impoverished’ citizens of the Pitztal looking on with envious eyes to their wealthier neighbouring resorts.

It is not of dispute that cableway connections between two of Austria’s most stunning and rugged valleys will provide a financial injection for the Pitztal. New ski routes in an area not easily accessible by day-trippers will therefore stimulate the need for new hotels, restaurants, and associated infrastructure. From an Oetztal perspective, where traffic attempting to access the Obergurgl, Soelden, and Oetz ski areas is often gridlocked in the winter months, there is perhaps more of a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude than the pressing case being presented by those in the Pitztal. Nevertheless, the many in the Oetztal already rich from the fat of the mountains will be that bit more so should the connection between both valleys become reality.

When other valleys constructed their networks of cableways and especially since connecting neighbouring resorts became particularly en vogue, the spectre of Climate Change was far enough over the horizon to not even rank as a credible consideration. For a long time valleys and their resorts would be in direct competition with each other; the very notion of linking up via from different sides of a jointly used mountain or wider chain of peaks would have been seen to be counterproductive, with the financial end in danger of not justifying the substantial means to bring about such a scheme. Although skiers can be loyal year on year to certain resorts in the end most become weary of the same pistes, particularly when the challenge is no longer seen as such. Retaining guests, even if it involves their affections being shared with the neighbouring valley, has therefore become increasingly fashionable and enabled the Austrian ski industry to break new ground where it was perhaps seen to be entering a period of developmental stasis.

In recent years there has been an upsurge in the merging of ski areas, each one seemingly seizing the mantle of the world’s largest integrated winter sports playground from the last. Environmental considerations have always in the end been shunted aside; when the accusations fly that the insatiable pursuit of big profits is the main driver behind the linking of resorts, an insistence that a spirit of friendship and cooperation between neighbouring, not rival, resorts/valleys is instead on what each scheme is predicated has seemingly hoodwinked the more naive to believe what frankly borders on the ridiculous.

Neighbouring Slovenia and Italy has also though cottoned on to this idea. Until the last few years Slovenia’s highest ski area, Mount Kanin above the frontier town of Bovec, was effectively inaccessible after the Kanin’s eponymous cableway ceased all operations after a serious malfunction resulted in several of its carriages, thankfully empty at the time, inexplicably crashing to earth. To this day the reason for this near calamity has not been established; a freak gust of wind was put forward as a credible cause, although meteorological records from the time failed to highlight any abnormal conditions consistent with such an outcome. It could also be argued that a functioning cableway should be able to withstand an occasional, if not a sustained period,  gust of wind above the level in which it would be considered to be safe to operate. Realizing the unique importance to Bovec and its surround areas the Slovenian government helped fund the cableway’s reactivation.

During its period of inactivity on the Slovenian side of Kanin those still minded to stay in Bovec were each morning bussed over the border to Sella Nevea, the Italian resort which shares the mountain that acts as a natural border between both countries. Feeling little of the financial benefit of those staying in Slovenia but skiing in Sella Nevea, Bovec inevitably suffered during three years of inactivity on its side of Kanin and whilst central government aid was welcome, the delayed reaction from the Slovenian government betrayed a policy more akin to dithering and prevarication that proactivity.

Sensing through the limited possibilities of cooperation between both resorts during the Kanin cableway’s inactivity a chance to link Bovec and Sella Nevea in the same way many Austrian valleys have joined forces, an ambitious and expensive by Slovenian standards plan has now been proposed to formally link the operations of both, in effect bringing the infrastructure under the aegis of a jointly run organization. This would ensure continuity of service that wasn’t possible during the recent years of inactivity, and effectively shoulder the burdens of both sides of the mountain instead of one being hamstrung by the other. This of course is no longer unusual between neighbouring resorts in the same country but is far less common when involving two separate nations.

Should an overwhelmingly compelling case for the merger be made much of the money required to formally link Bovec and Kanin will come from the European Union(EU). For the avoidance of doubt it should though be stated that the EU is not in the business of funding tourism ventures predicated upon improving on what is already in situ, building new infrastructure from scratch, or indeed creating conditions where accusations of showing favouritism at the expense of comparable neighbouring and countrywide resorts could be levelled. Should the scheme be successful in securing European funding it will be on the basis of furthering cross border friendship and cooperation. Although this arguably amounts to a dubious loophole to be exploited by resorts who indeed do have an unfair advantage over others that don’t share a frontier with a neighbouring(foreign) ski area, it is the only realistic way the much smaller and relatively impoverished Slovenian ski industry can hope to continue, especially when many of its lower resorts will eventually succumb to Global Warming’s ‘greening’ of the winter months.

For all the accusations of securing funding for what is a tourism venture on alternative but rather nebulous, subjective grounds, there is at least an established ski area on both sides of Kanin. Working within and perhaps only slightly straying from the existing development footprint will at least keep the ecological damage of what is an already fragile, barren landscape to a minimum. This is where the proposals to link the Oetz and Pitz valleys differ, where much of the terrain set aside for development is glacial, predominantly virgin. Whilst an apparent promise of almost all-year-round skiing is a unique selling point in itself the inexorable march of Climate Change, and the obvious effect it is now having on Alpine Europe, places a sizeable doubt on the viability of a scheme predicated on glacial skiing. Is a total investment of over €130 million on a scheme reliant on permanent icefields akin to throwing money down the crevasses and striations that the annual maintenance of glacial ski areas has just covered up and filled in? If nothing else it brings a new slant to the term ‘papering over the cracks’.

If the notion of damaging one of the final untouched regions of the Alps and driving its native wildlife higher up into the mountains – this though is an area of the Tirol where one cannot get much more elevated – leaves those with the ultimate say on the scheme’s fate unmoved then surely the very idea of investing heavily in a terminally declining landscape, and those proposing to do so, need to be saved from themselves. Some say glaciers will have completely disappeared by 2100; I would suggest some will have given up the ghost by 2030. Quite aside from the dubious premise of skiing on glaciers, Climate Change is a game changer that cannot be ignored. This is no longer a level playing field where the precedent of allowing winter sports activities on other glaciers and the linking together of neighbouring resorts elsewhere in the Tirol automatically acts as a cast iron reason for development. Equally, it can no longer be justified on the grounds that the Alps are already overdeveloped so why cannot we have a piece of the action, and so on and so forth.

Notwithstanding the refusal to merge Hochoetz and Kuhtai ski areas victories in recent times against the continued overdevelopment of pristine landscapes are all too rare, as are the continued refusals by municipalities to countenance the often-suggested but steadfastly resisted proposals – the Jamtal in Galtur being a notable exception – to build yet more pylons and pistes at the expense of dense, native forests that characterise the immediate and wider surroundings far more than the alternative.  Austria must now though be seen to position itself as a defender of its landscape against Climate Change, and not instead be seen to hand it over to certain oblivion, in the pursuit of a few dollars more.

Source material and further information:

Tiroler Tageszeitung: http://www.tt.com/wirtschaft/standorttirol/16135751/studie-gletscher-ehe-von-pitztal-und-oetztal-bringt-jobs-und-millionen and https://www.tt.com/politik/landespolitik/16164219/geplante-gletscherehe-pitztal-oetztal-als-kraftprobe

Dnevnik(Slovenia): http://www.dnevnik.si/1042895282

Alpenverein(Austria): http://www.alpenverein.at/portal/news/aktuelle_news/2019/2019_06_24_PK_Oettztal-Pitztal.php

Alpenverein(Germany): http://www.alpenverein.de/natur/alpine-raumordnung/aktuelle-erschliessungen/skierschliessungen-mega-projekt-zusammenschluss-pitztal-oetztal_aid_16516.html





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