In the immediate term Austria’s delayed ski season is due to begin on Christmas Eve or January 7th, depending on the resort. Where the Soelden ski area in the Oetztal aims to reopen for business in 12 days’ time, further up the valley in Obergurgl and Vent, the slopes expect to receive guests after many in normal circumstances have long since returned home.
Resorts that can take winter sports’ participants beyond 3,000 metres above sea-level are those that have the most to lose but also the greatest opportunity to recoup lost finance from the truncated ski season that dramatically slammed shut in March, and the not inconsiderable deficit precipitated by a Christmas and New Year period which under normal circumstances would all but guarantee 100% occupancy rates.
There is though much to lose for high altitude, relatively snow-sure resorts, and valleys. Having invested heavily in lift infrastructure, often to the tune of hundreds of millions of Euros(€), huge sums of money will have been borrowed on the strength of projected income, much of which is a given during the festive season. It is not guaranteed that lavishly detailed hotels will automatically be able to absorb the hit in income, with outgoings again relying on income that would otherwise have been as certain as night following day. Behind many glittering facades and comfortably upholstered patrons lies a pile of debt expecting to be serviced by the deep-pockets of snow sport aficionados.
Resorts and ski areas that lie at lower altitudes can ill-afford to start the season several weeks or even a month later than would is the norm. Although state aid is forthcoming it in no way represents anything other than a sticking plaster to the ailing hospitality industry, and cannot be expected to pick up the slack forever. It is moot as to whether lower lying resorts can expect to receive skiers and the like when the appearance of natural snow in sufficient quantities is becoming less certain with each year that passes, but the egregious appearance of profusions of snow cannons – what is the collective noun for snow cannons? – that produce ersatz white gold by using unacceptably large volumes of water, and account for storage ponds that pockmark mountainsides, can in some respect overcome a lack of the real thing. The problem is that this winter season, ironically having already received a large fall of natural snow, there are no patrons to enjoy the snow conditions – be they synthesized or via Mother Nature.
The pandemic has taught those not already aware that our open spaces, be they countryside, coastal, or mountainscapes are vital to mental and physical wellbeing. Offering solace from our homes that many will have had to quarantine within and make a living in, the prospect of free or affordable, socially-distanced exercise and a welcome change of scenery has helped, and probably saved, more people than can be quantified. There does though remain a drive to refashion many sites in the great outdoors into money-making ventures that will detract from the reason why so many visit these areas in the first place.
The constant pressure being placed on the UK landscape by often unattainable housing targets imposed upon local planning authorities threatens in perpetuity an already diminishing green and pleasant land with incongruous architecture shoehorned into and completely at odds with the landscape, all in the name of remedying the so-called affordable housing crisis which it is doing much to perpetuate. Since municipalities stopped building council houses the UK property sector is primarily driven by the private sector, where issues of viability(i.e. profit margin) and land banking are denying those most in need of somewhere affordable to live in favour of building premium properties for those already residing in properties whose value has exponentially ballooned thanks to estate agency greed, but also a stasis in housing permissions during the Labour regimes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Fixing the ‘broken’ housing market is one thing, but keeping party donors and big business happy, the Conservatives’ stock-in-trade, is quite another. With enough Brownfield land, areas previously developed for alternative uses but not always in the most salubrious of postcodes, to build all the houses the UK apparently needs, the Conservatives’ planning algorithm threatens to drive more housing towards areas demanding the highest prices, in other words where people want to live. This will only further perpetuate the lack of affordable dwellings, and put further pressure on the countryside once it has been quickly realized that yet more development will be needed to address this shamefully dealt with subject.
It can never be underestimated how big a deal winter tourism is to Austria. Previously mentioned infrastructure is bankrolled on the strength of predicted numbers of tourists in the tens of millions across the year, with a heavy concentration of these visitors arriving between December and April. The range of lifts and connectivity between resorts and indeed valleys have in recent times become regular features of the winter experience, and are predominantly well-hidden under a somewhat forgiving white coat. It is though in the summer months that in some areas of the Tirol and Salzburgerland that the full horror of what has been allowed to blight mountainsides becomes apparent. The well-worn answer to the adage of how much is enough immediately springs to mind on espying apparently abandoned(operational in wintertime only) cableways and pylons interrupting the vistas which they have been built to allow greater access to but are threatening to undermine. Then there are the mountains and in some examples summits. that have been ‘remodelled’ at the hands of man to make the terrain more receptive to receiving top station lifts, and as the start to pistes offering runs to the resort.
A long-running and highly controversial saga to link the Oetztal above Soelden with the neighbouring Pitz valley was kicked into the long grass perhaps two months before novel coronavirus had the final say over the 2019/20 winter sports’ season. Projected to cost over €130 million the proposal would invade one of Austria’s last high-alpine virgin territories in the name of guaranteed snow for those selfish enough to believe they are entitled to contribute towards tearing up the landscape in the name of recreation, and wealth creation.
In what is undoubtedly a spectacular glacial setting, the two sides vying to bring the scheme to fruition are arriving from very different positions. I sense a feeling of the Oetztal ‘coming along for the ride’ to add atop to its already lavishly decorated cake yet another cherry whilst the relatively impoverished, impenetrable, and sparsely populated Pitztal seeks a chair at the party before the music stops. Harbouring resentment that it has missed the boat compared to so many other areas that have seen their glacial surroundings developed supposedly for the greater good, supporters of the scheme in the Pitztal can argue that many precedents have been set elsewhere where landowners and farmers have become overnight millionaires, but disregarding previous instances is key when judging individual proposals on their own merits, with the spectre of Climate Change more than showing its hand through increasingly unpredictable and volatile meteorological seasons.
Where other areas bent the knee to ‘progress’ is the last untouched high-alpine region with potential to accommodate the winter sports industry the one to be protected? Will it be left alone to show future generations what most of the Alps previously resembled, before they were defaced by the restless blandishments and innovation of man?
The pandemic itself does not offer a valid excuse not to develop the Pitztal’s glacial scenery, but may have thrown a hefty spanner in the works as banks presumably get cold feet at the thought of lending many millions in the name of a project which may never end up paying its way. From a Covid perspective skiing is one of the safest pursuits once participants are on the piste, but restrictions on cableway capacities, the installing of apparatus to combat the spread of the virus, and the shelving of traditional high-energy apres ski jollity will severely dent the ability of the industry to turn its usual hefty profit this season, and perhaps for an indeterminate period of time. Far from the environmental repercussions having the final say on the Oetztal-Pitztal scheme, a pandemic that has shaken the whole world could give legitimate long-term justification for its agitators to have little choice but to permanently withdrawn their plans.
Those seeking to counter the argument that alpine landscapes are increasingly being undermined by the loss of tree cover to accommodate pistes and a profusion of man-made structures, will insist that there is plenty of the Alps still without blot or blemish, and that farmers living in extremely difficult growing conditions will economically benefit from the sale of their land. It is said that the Pitztal suffers from emigration due to a lack of employment opportunities, but it should be remembered it does already have a ski scene, and is a popular, if albeit difficult to access location for summer hikers and climbers. The relative seclusion and a lack of sophistication are what will attract many visitors, but not in numbers sufficient for the valley to wallow in unbridled prosperity that it jealously eyes others doing so.
Just because an area could in theory be developed doesn’t mean it should be, nor does it automatically rule it out. It is not up to the relevant authorities to rule out the proposed Pitztal-Oetztal marriage to in some way atone for the sins of the past committed elsewhere in Austria’s mountainous regions, nor can the scheme be granted purely because others of its kind have in the past been approved. Many residents in the Tirol’s valleys would quietly admit that the time of overdevelopment to the point of saturation has long since been reached but would continue to fight their corners if it were they, and not the Pitztal, that is the last valley standing which hasn’t been visited by the golden goose. It may though in the end have to ‘settle’ for greater innovation of how it entertains its summer guests and to some extent its current and prospective winter visitors, if its desired link with the Oetztal never comes to fruition.
The early months of the pandemic made many people reassess what was important to them, but also highlighted, as it continues to do so, much of what is wrong with a society loathed to follow rules designed for their own good, and a highly-destructive lack of respect for the environment and authority. There have been many casualties of Covid-19, both in the lives it has taken, and the relationships ended by so much enforced close proximity to our nearest, but not always dearest. It is unclear if the virus will in any way recalibrate the UK government’s attitude to rampant house building being a cure for all ills – in reality their approach is causing more problems than it solves – but ‘building back better’ is a sentiment as nebulous and specious as can be, when many of the people to whom it is aimed to help are those causing the continued propagation and virulence of the health emergency.
A case can be made to appreciate what one has and to realize that wealth and trappings of materialism are temporary, a sentiment the monied and content Oetztal can probably afford to reason with. It is though the prospect of one final pay day that will tempt the Soelden-based adherents of the scheme to persevere, but at a financial and environmental price that is just not worth paying. It might be a blessing if Covid-19 sounds the death knell of the Oetztal-Pitztal connection, but it will be a sad indictment if its unexpected and unprecedented effect on all of human life and ambition ultimately had the casting vote, rather than mankind holding up its hand and saying, enough is enough.
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