As the dust settles cautiously on the beginning of the end of novel coronavirus’ first wave, I ponder if what the world has learned during the last six months will be long forgotten once the need for rampant materialism once more kicks in, first during the egregious Halloween/Bonfire Night season before the vulgarity wrapped within Christmas’ conspicuous consumption takes it to another level. Truly, we are in danger of learning that we have learnt nothing at all.

OK, we might have grasped that city centres are in danger of becoming identikit sets from the likes of 28 Days Later as more and more of us ‘work from home’, a catchall but nevertheless nebulous approximation of a majority of employees working remotely who think themselves far more important than they actually are. Will in that case the UK government turn its gaze away from devastating the English countryside to instead promote city living, and therefore find a use for the catastrophic glut of office space all dressed up but with little purpose? Don’t bet on it.

It is perhaps overly simplistic to suggest that Covid-19 has re-calibrated the mindsets of those tasked with steering development away from the countryside so many have (re)discovered during the pandemic, with dishonourable mentions for those more concerned with appropriating it into their anti-social lives more redolent with sink estates than national parks. As the countryside became a haven and solace for those suffering the effects of cabin fever within their often-substandard sized dwellings, behaviour more in keeping with anti-social neighbours spread into our green spaces, reservoir peripheries, and even mountain tops. Over 130 items of plastic beach toys have been recovered in the last few months by volunteers determined to keep Lytham St. Annes beach safe for man and beast alike.

Like all tourist destinations and vacation genres the Alps has suffered from a sharp drop in visitor numbers but not catastrophically so, due the ease with which many visitors from neighbouring countries can access the mountains from overland. In the wake of the Ischgl scandal which seemingly triggered the virus spreading throughout Europe the main thrust of the argument has been less how can the Alps be content with what winter sports infrastructure it already has, but more how the powerful apres-ski industry can window dress itself to be the responsible facet of most people’s alpine getaway. At times more akin to an Ibiza on the ice than a jolly knees up to hackneyed disco hits, some post ski entertainment has plumbed the depths of sordidness and depravity. Frequent cleansing of venues and testing of staff will become the norm, as perhaps could participants being restricted to seating instead of vertical drinking which at times takes the ‘pressing the flesh’ idiom far further than its original definition…

It would therefore seem that a lack of tourist numbers and their euros(€) to enable the recouping of multi-million investments in upgraded but also new standalone projects is the primary concern of stakeholders, and not how Europe’s mountainscapes should be preserved after their importance to mental and physical well-being and the appreciation of what is often taken for granted were starkly highlighted during the initial weeks and months – when Covid-19 had a stranglehold on just about everything.

A proposed link between the Oetztal and its relatively impoverished Pitztal neighbour provoked discussion and sparked controversy arguably more so than any other similar plan to date in Austria, with the scheme being suspended and kicked into the long grass a couple of months prior to novel coronavirus even being considered as a serious threat. Put on the back burner to reassess the likely impacts of the gargantuan scheme upon the virgin glacial terrain, it would seem that the hiatus in tourism and a supposed change in mindset brought about by the pandemic has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the main protagonists, with an arrogance as breath-taking as it is depressing once more stepping forth out of the bombast aired by the Oetztal side.

Notwithstanding the effects of Covid-19 on alpine tourism the long-term threat of Climate Change is the main player in town, and is already driving developments higher into the mountains where in theory at least, the temperatures are colder and the snow more sure. Much of the Oetztal-Pitztal link is though based on breaking new ground at altitude which has otherwise lain untouched, but by making glacial skiing the underpinning ultimate selling point is not only financially but environmentally irresponsible when in all likelihood many permanent ice fields will frankly no longer exist in the next 30-50 years.

Just because somewhere has not been tapped for its apparent winter sports potential doesn’t mean it should be, as the Jamtal side valley to Paznaun has proven. The Oetztal-Pitztal link is though apparently desperately needed by the latter, with the former, already replete with sophisticated cableways and associated infrastructure, seemingly coming along for the ride. Indeed, it is rumoured that the Soelden side of the deal will only shoulder 10% of the €130+ million bill. It is understandable that the Pitztal feels as a winter sports destination that it has missed the boat whilst similar sparsely populated, previously predominantly agricultural valleys have become very rich from skiing’s gold rush. The music did though have to stop at some point and when it did, the Pitztal has in effect become the odd one out as environmental lobbies and their increasingly compelling arguments against the unchecked blighting of the Alps gain greater traction, taking to task the fat cats seen as merciless exploiters of the natural world for their unremitting, just a few dollars more, gain.

As water and snow itself become unpredictably scarce or at the wrong time of year overly abundant, a relatively new phenomenon of storage ponds pockmarking mountain sides threatens to become the next battleground for state environmental attorneys and pressure groups. I have been to Austrian resorts where these engineered storage waterholes are treated by the local tourism association as natural tarns would be, often involving them as part of hiking trails. My experiences of these contrived lagoons have left me cold and unmoved as to their purported aesthetic properties, fully minded that their contents are being reserved for the production of ersatz snow on which so much, too much, depends. It should also be remembered that during recent summers of high temperatures and drought within the mountains, many farmers have been unable to adequately water their herds whilst the ‘for winter use only’ water remains untouched, and untouchable.

It is my opinion that the pandemic came perversely at the right time for those pushing the Oetztal-Pitztal agenda. Keeping the scheme out of the limelight and national headlines whilst novel coronavirus monopolizes column inches and news bulletins gives the stakeholders time to regroup, and eventually control the narrative when the proposal is rebooted for determination. There is undoubtedly potential to use Covid-19 to the project’s advantage, arguing that a dip in revenue for an already ‘forgotten’ Pitztal highlights the need for a significant stimulus for perhaps the sparsest populated per square kilometre valley in Austria. Its remote situation would inevitably suggest that as a given, but it will be argued that many residents have left the valley in search of greater employment opportunities.

The mountainscapes of Austria’s Tirol and Salzburgerland are both overdeveloped, in some cases saturation point left the building quite some time ago. Many will argue that another project will make little difference to the sum total of similar schemes throughout the region, but the point of contention should sit squarely on each cableway proposal being judged on its own merits and not because the neighbouring resort has already got this, that, and the other. Is an environmental damaging and apathetic past time such as skiing a legitimate reason to tear up the untouched beauty of the high Pitztal, or should its inhabitants be given the chance to make big money before Global Warming has the final say?

Expansion in the Alps as a whole has to stop before it is too late, a point that has already been breached in some resorts. If a line in the sand is drawn to prevent further undermining of a unique terrain already under attack by man-made changes to the earth’s climate, there will at least be some protection for a landscape which draws so many to its unique characteristics but has in the end become vulnerable to rapacious over-development by dint of its ultimate selling points.

Source material and further information:

Kronen Zeitung: http://www.krone.at/2217079

Kurier: https://kurier.at/chronik/oesterreich/ski-verbindung-pitztaloetztal-umstrittene-gletscherehe-wackelt/401014895

Mein Bezirk: http://www.meinbezirk.at/imst/c-wirtschaft/rubatscher-gibt-fuehrung-ab_a4193163