Reliant on perhaps up to 90% of visitors from outside its borders to sustain a tourism economy, Austria’s Tirol region will be nervously anticipating a sharp drop in revenue during its forthcoming summer season. As though border restrictions with its neighbouring countries are slowly relaxed, will a ‘make do and mend’ hiatus to its usual global appeal result in a ‘less is more’ respite for a mountainscape increasingly feeling the heat from incessant (over)development?
It is a rare thing to encounter Austrians holidaying in Tirolean hotels. That is not to say they do not venture to their country’s higher regions, of course they do, but tourism bosses would never prior to the Covid-19 pandemic have relied so heavily on the domestic market to pick up the slack, or at least to some small degree offset the financial black hole created by the expected collapse in foreign visitor numbers.
Often preferring vacations in North Africa, Greece, and the Balearics that guarantee warmth and relaxation after what used to be long and cold winters but as Climate Change increasingly shows it hand are now becoming increasingly mild and unpredictable, Austrians are for the time being left with two stay at home options: literally so, or to holiday within their own borders.
It has been said that foreign dominated mass tourism driven by irresponsible Instagram ‘must see’ location tick lists has squeezed out domestic visitors to the likes of Slovenia’s Lake Bohinj, with calls for a financial levy to be paid by those visiting from overseas to toward the upkeep of the Triglav National Park, wherein the lake is situated. Suggestions of even banning at certain times of the year those travelling from outside Slovenia to Bohinj have been mooted but clash with European Union Freedom of Movement directives, and incorrectly stigmatize all foreign guests as being ‘the problem’. It is though not from which country Bohinj’s guests arrive, but how many are doing so at the same time.
It has been said that foreign tourists often treat the Alps’ pearls with greater reverence than domestic visitors, who can adopt a ‘I can do what I like in my own country’ attitude to littering, illegal parking and using a Bohinj-specific example, cycling along its northern shores. That is not to say that travellers from overseas do not display such breathtaking arrogance and ignorance, but their travel itineraries often contain specific instructions of the do’s and don’ts; directives though that lack the manpower to be enforced suggests that fines that are collected fail to be spent on where they are needed the most.
We are now entering an indeterminate new norm for tourism, which will enable alpine regions to gauge, aside from the conspicuous drop in revenue, just how its lakes and mountains are affected by visitor numbers. Levels of air pollution will obviously drop, although this can also occur when large numbers of visitors descend on resorts if they have done so using park and ride facilities, or integrated public transport services. It will though be instructive to measure how closely ordinances and bylaws are adhered to compared to summer seasons of otherwise unchecked global tourism, and whilst the sheer amount of travellers is the main point of contention in hotspots including Bled, Bohinj, Wolfgangsee, Hallstatt, and further afield in Dubrovnik and Venice, conclusions will inevitably be drawn as to from where, if anywhere, the main culprits arrive.
It is though the number of visitors who land in short, intense bursts which are ultimately to blame? Picture the scene. Tourists from wherever, it doesn’t matter where, on a whistle-stop tour of Europe/Slovenia/Austria have had their respective interests peaked by countless improbably beautiful alpine and lakeside backdrops on their Instagram timelines, captured by influencers and those who author ‘must see’ and bucket list instructions, not suggestions, of which your life would always be incomplete without full compliance. Using Lake Bohinj as an example of this, let’s look at the likely scenario of such visits:
- Arrive, perhaps park illegally, and head straight for the famous stone bridge with selfie stick to capture the lake’s exquisite backdrop.
- Head down to the lake’s shoreline, perhaps adjacent to either side of the bridge and take a quick dip in the water, polluting it with chemicals from sun cream. Another selfie.
- With insufficient time for the three-hour hike around the lake, instead hire a bicycle and attempt to use it on the rocky and in places tricky northern shore, where cycling is not permitted. Watch out for ephemeral floods on your ‘cycling path’ from the lake itself and impromptu cataracts, both after heavy rain.
- Finally give up and make a way back past the lakeside Bar Kramar, with time running short before it is time to leave. Just enough time for another selfie, this time with the statue dedicated to four local mountaineering pioneers who became the first to scale Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak, in 1778.
This might not be a typical example of a day-visitor to Bohinj, but it is not unknown for this ‘itinerary’ to be played out there and in other alpine picture-perfect locations. Through the hiring of the bike tourism statistics will record this visitor and countless others who otherwise offer no benefit whatsoever to the area and have only journeyed to Bohinj so they can say they have done – complete with photographic proof.
An argument has been made that Bohinj’s overnight hotel accommodation is inadequate to cope with all who would like to prolong their stays in the region, leaving day visits or stays in campsites as the only realistic alternatives. This could be given some credence if the problems experienced by mass tourism were the preserve of Bohinj, and not witnessed elsewhere in the Alps and the Adriatic coastline. Bohinj has undoubtedly suffered by the closure of both the Zlatorog and Bellevue hotels, although many other options exist between the extremes of the valley – from Bohinjska Bistrica to Ukanc.
It is though with some irony that as new owners begin to breathe fresh life into the Zlatorog, Bellevue, Bohinj, and Ski Hotel Vogel through the promise of redevelopment which will go a long way to attract the ‘right’ sort of tourism to the Julian Alps, that travel as we know it has been disrupted for an indeterminate period. Will the respective owners of these hotels use this pause to bring their new acquisitions up to code ready for the 2021 summer season, or could the uncertainty brought by Covid-19 into the lives of everyone once more stall the reopening of Bohinj’s previously foremost hotels, several of which are already in desperate condition?
Through its proximity, landscape, and shared language the Austrian Tirol and Salzburgerland provinces have always been popular destinations with German visitors, who will in the next few weeks be able to cross the border and take vacations perhaps planned long before Covid-19 took hold. Or will they? As hotels and cableways slowly reopen although in many cases they may not, will travellers wish to stay in accommodation where their mask-wearing hosts demand the same from them? With a prospect of social distancing in wellness areas and around the breakfast buffet, will holidaying be more an ordeal than a pleasure?
For those tasked in monitoring the effects of tourism on alpine regions, these are indeed intriguing times ripe with research potential. Be it a temporary advent of better tourism through less visitors and/or an absence of certain nationalities, coupled with domestic travellers re-engaging with their own country, the biggest fear will though be what will happen when Covid-19 is a thing of the past, in effect sounding the starting gun for a stampede to the Alps.
It is now or never for all pertinent parties to design a future strategy for alpine tourism, and not simply use this pause in proceedings to hand-wring about the loss of visits during the 2020 summer season, many of which serve no positive purpose for an increasingly fragile landscape perhaps more of a bellwether to Climate Change’s very real effects than any other. What can be learned during a period when the Alps has been bought some time by Covid-19 will go a long way to shape its future as a sustainable location for soft ecotourism, not its mass antithesis.