It was once suggested to me by a hotelier in the Austrian lakeside resort of St. Wolfgang im Salzkammergut that his Obergurgl counterparts did not need to be friendly as they were all already millionaires. Whether each were indeed already men and women of significant means, as was almost twenty years, remains in little doubt but the notion that great wealth, acquired through one’s own industry or by dint of inheritance automatically engenders surliness towards and detachment from those who remain the hospitality industry’s bread and butter, its guests, is moot, but undoubtedly is an easy stick with which to beat the accused.
I have encountered indifference but also extreme kindness and genuine interest from operators of modest jausenstations, a form of alpine stop off point below the now often highly sophisticated alpine mountain restaurants that often double up in the winter as throbbing apres ski venues, but above unsupervised refuges where the basic tenets of shelter from the elements and liquid sustenance for which the weary travel should leave a donation present the traditional concept of man drawing back from his ideas of supremacy over nature, never more so than when the Alp’s famously capricious weather shows its hand.
What stimulated the conversation between myself and the St. Wolfgang innkeeper stemmed from some indifferent service a year previous in the Oetztal, ranging from outright hostility towards my walking party when the words “oh, English” left us in little doubt as to the feelings of the hut owner based above Soelden, to fluctuating friendliness in a hotel no longer in existence and an attitude from another accommodation provider and restaurateur still very much with us that betrayed a work to rule, bare minimum level of attentiveness. Resenting customers is one thing but treating them as such when they’re in a remote location and therefore a captive audience is as cynical as it is unacceptable.
My overall impression of Austrian hospitality shaped from in excess of twenty visits to the country concludes that tourists often misinterpret what can come across as hosts being abrupt simply because what is being said in English, not the native lingo. Now, I am not suggesting that Austrian hoteliers and restaurateurs resent speaking a foreign language in their own country, but it is nevertheless extremely hard to articulate yourself in another tongue the same way as is done in one’s own vernacular. The accusation that Austrians prefer German customers to those from other countries might in some or many cases be true, but a friendliness demonstrated in a familiar language will always look more genuine than that expressed in one where their grasp is good, but not all encompassing. I think it only right to cut our Tyrolean and Salzburgerlander hosts some slack and appreciate that their handle on our language is in the majority of cases far greater than ours is of theirs.
This post isn’t though a dissection of Austrian attitudes towards its visitors. As with any nation that places great emphasis on its tourist trade there will always be good and bad experiences, and those in customer-facing settings who are either ideal or inappropriate for the roles they hold. My experiences in Obergurgl some twenty years ago have had me thinking of late how the village – it really is the definition of a village and at the end of Oetz valley where civilization ends – like many high alpine settings in Austria must continually assess whether being open for business during the summer, albeit in a heavily watered down version compared to the full on ski season, remains viable.
A sufficient amount of money is undoubtedly made during the winter season for Obergurgl’s lift company to presumably operate at a seasonal loss during the summertime, although most journeys on the Hohe Mut and Hochgurglbahn/Wurmkogel gondolas and chairlift will be made by holders of the Oetztal Card, essentially a free pass to all the valley’s lifts and bus services given out by the majority of accommodation providers open during the warmer months. Again, I presume that the tourist association reimburses the lift company for each time the card is used in lieu of a cash transaction, concluding a virtuous altruistic circle that arguably doesn’t have to exist in the first place.
I have though noticed Obergurgl’s summertime accommodation options are fewer than they were twenty years ago. Admittedly some hotels have opened as others opt to close until the November start of the winter sports season, but some very large and expensive hotels remain shut for half of the year despite undoubtedly sizeable annual maintenance bills. The money made during the winter in Obergurgl, and the likes of Soelden, Ischgl, and St. Anton am Arlberg is astonishing, reflecting their popularity, often hedonistic approach to apres ski, of being snow sure and the perhaps eighteen-hour days worked by those in the hospitality trade. It is therefore understandable that the summer season is seen as off peak, and a perfect time to down tools before the next snows arrive. Nevertheless, to be so wealthy that an income is not required during the summer reflects the incredible amounts of money generated during the winter season which accounts for approximately 60% of annual tourist revenue.
There are hoteliers who are men(and women) for all seasons, being as eager to provide a base camp to hikers and climbers during the summer as they are to skiers and snowboarders in the peak season. Are we to assume these hosts are financially motivated by the maxim that enough money is a little bit more, in effect never reaching a point of contentment? Perhaps, but the motives of individuals who form part of a collective can never be assumed, with some presumably enjoying the more sedate, less chaotic and demanding hiking and biking clientele than the ‘grin and think of the money’ scenario when dealing with raucous skiers until the early hours.
The ramifications of novel coronavirus have of course been felt across the alpine tourist industry, with the images of St. Anton, Soelden, and in particular Ischgl being dented by varying accusations of placing a greater importance on money than human health, both from a Covid perspective but also what is tolerated in the name of night-time entertainment. As a resort that can entertain skiers beyond even a late Easter Obergurgl lost significant revenue from the abrupt March shutdown when other lower lying regions were already winding down their winter seasons. With the summer season beginning in earnest in late June, there was though sufficient time for Austria to get a handle on the pandemic and subsequently (re)open tourism at a time that coincided with the natural point that many areas otherwise do so.
It is though a short summer season in the high Oetztal. I suggested to the Obergurgl tourist office that whilst Covid-19 wouldn’t on its own affect the length of its summer programme which typically ends in early September, many prospective guests intending to travel to the valley will be prevented from doing so until restrictions in their own nation and reciprocal arrangements with Austria had been relaxed, with otherwise little chance of being able access the higher realms above and beyond the village should the lift’s operating schedule be restricted to the usual first week of September. The climate at the village’s elevation of almost 7,000 feet above sea level ensures there will be days when using the lifts will be impossible, but the first month of autumn can often be the best time for walking in Austria amid settled, balmy conditions.
Sadly, the season will not be elongated beyond the norm in what is a year like no other which has also impacted upon Obergurgl in a second way that could not have been anticipated. In late May, a highly significant landslide brought down tonnes of rock not directly onto the highway between nearby Zwieselstein and Untergurgl but atop the concrete gallery that protects it from such occurrences, undermining its structural integrity and closing off Obergurgl to the outside world from its usual point of access. An alternative route using the Timmelsjoch high alpine road gave a connection of sorts, but the natural access from Soelden was severed, highlighting that despite the advent of tourism and exposure to the outside world since Auguste Piccard famously landed his balloon on a glacier above Obergurgl in 1931, the areas remains extremely remote and vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature.
After six weeks of disruption access was established with three weeks of the ‘cableway season’ lost, compounding the way Covid-19 has placed such a heavy restriction on visitor numbers from outside of Austria’s borders. Despite this double whammy in extremis to Obergurgl’s tourist industry and the guests it would otherwise expect to receive, the operating schedule for its two lifts and in effect the closing date of its summer season remains the first week of September.
The cableway network down the valley in Soelden offers far greater flexibility as standard, with most of its lifts operating until the last week of September and in some cases, the first week of October. Each municipality within the Oetztal operating under the one card can seemingly set its own schedule, but the argument that the higher reaches cannot be guaranteed to be accessed beyond a certain date is dispelled by many of Soelden’s lifts topping out at higher altitudes than the Hohe Mut, and at similar elevations to the Wurmkogel/Hochgurglbahn, the latter which only operates three days a week.
With only one hotel currently open in Obergurgl because of the dual inconvenience wrought on it by Covid-19 and latterly the landslip, extending the season for three weeks into what could be a golden Indian summer might provide some solace for its tourist industry, especially ahead of the continued uncertainty of what the new norm of a winter season that impacts less upon the moral and physical health of participants might consist of.
Could the summer of 2020 be the accelerant that finally sees the village become a ‘winter only’ location, which in turn runs the risk of lessons from unsustainable levels of snow-sports tourism and associated negative behaviours within Covid-19 alpine hotspots being overlooked, in the name of earning an all year round income from a few months of trading?
There are no easy answers or a one size fits all policy for alpine tourism in the wake of the pandemic and Climate Change – the ultimate elephant in the room. Obergurgl is both a special case and a special place, but a lack of summer trade and a theoretical eventual cessation of tourist activity during the summer months could see this historic, formerly agricultural-based village resemble the unashamedly purpose-built ‘winter only’ Hochgurgl, developed purely for its snow-surety. Perhaps conclusions should not be drawn just from a year to end years during the modern era, but one cannot help feel that the die will in many areas of life be cast as a natural, and necessary reset button for all our hopes, expectations, and priorities.
Kronen Zeitung: www.krone.at/2202873
Obergurgl lifts summer timetable: www.obergurgl.com/summer/summer-start-2020.html
Soelden lifts summer timetable: www.soelden.com/summer/hiking/mountain-lifts-uphill-facilities/summer-mountain-lifts.html