When I returned to the Wildschoenau three years ago after an absence of over a decade, I was quickly reminded why my 2007 vacation in Niederau was perhaps up there with the best I have ever had.
In the twenty years I have been travelling to the Austrian Alps throughout Salzburgerland, Carinthia, and Tirol a transformation of many of its higher profile resorts has resulted in an explosion of new cableways, expanded hotels that often resemble scaled down villages, and associated infrastructure to enable hikers, but in particular mountain bikers and winter sports aficionados to get the very most from their surroundings. Where for example one resort within a region within a province might blink first by vastly upgrading its tourist ‘offering’, a ripple effect now upgraded to a tsunami has seen the alpine equivalent of an arms race develop, where adjacent municipalities and in some cases villages feel compelled to react to their neighbours’ developments.
This has engendered a change of mindset in many, where money and shiny, new but not necessarily visually appealing and sympathetic edifices have become the priority of the age; few regions of alpine Austria can say that they have adopted a similar approach to for example Slovenia’s Bohinj – where agriculture and tourism are expected to live harmoniously, instead of the latter eroding the valley’s historic identity and roots.
I understand that Climate Change has made the reliance on an agrarian economy to be far more precarious than it once was, with the Alps being a challenging environment for farming in the best of times. There is though a feeling that the threshold for ‘enough being enough’ in certain areas of the Alps has been breached, which could precipitate those who perceive themselves as economically lagging behind to force the issue to catch up.
The Wildschoenau – translated remember as Wild and Beautiful – is not a taxing valley for an experienced hiker but offers far more than subjective alpine challenges. It does what it say on the tin, insomuch that its relative juxtaposition within the wider Kitzbueheler Alps region and proximity to Woergl and the Inn Valley has not compromised a feeling of being away from it all, especially as one heads deeper into the valley towards Auffach.
My ideals when in the Alps in what otherwise is now a noisy, crowded, and selfish world have always been peace, abundance of nature, and a lack of sophistication – the latter is not necessarily a euphemism for rustic nor basic, but instead good, comfortable surroundings with traditional service and an absence of pretentiousness. My most recent stay in the Wildschoenau, at the welcoming Oberau-based Hotel Tirolerhof, was all I could have wished for.
There is though something of a seismic shift taking place in the valley, in particular within Oberau itself. I was dismayed when a ‘freizeitpark’ was first mooted a couple of years, which was to include an ice rink and the biggest uglification project of them all: an alpine coaster/toboggan run. This has since been realized not withstanding pandemic-related delays, resulting in the hillside adjacent but not quite next to the Hotel Tirolerhof being transformed into multi-use parkland, complete with an aesthetically displeasing metal track raised above the former pasture. The transformation is stark for a village the size of Oberau, but its tired, generic format dressed up in local significance by its Drachental appellation adds nothing but a sense that the Wildschoenau has bowed to the pressure it must feel it is under to emulate so many other resorts throughout alpine Austria.
It has recently come to my attention that a further, sizeable development in Oberau is not only being discussed but is already under way. The ground was broken last month for a far-reaching expansion of the historic Hotel Kellerwirt, now sadly a shadow of its 270+ year old self. Sympathetic and proportionate renovation would be the most sensible approach to a building that is synonymous with Oberau, but to my dismay a huge gouge in the adjacent hillside is the precursor to the Kellerwirt’s €50 million reboot – the largest project in financial terms that the valley has ever seen.
I am not a local of the Wildschoenau, and therefore have to tread carefully when passing my opinion and giving the impression that my views carry as much weight as those who reside in the valley. Nevertheless, Oberau is a small village with a distinct identity, whose relative serenity will be lost for good by both the Drachental park and the Kellerwirt’s redevelopment. It is perhaps surprising that the valley does not have tourist accommodation ranked within the 4S(Superior) and 5-Star categories, something which the ‘new’ Kellerwirt will emphatically redress. A craze of justifying huge developments as ‘health resorts’, a term perhaps coined to gain greater sympathy with town planners but in reality relates to what many hotels already offer their guests albeit on a smaller scale, has it seems made its way to the Wildschoenau. All the right noises will also be made about sustainability, resource conservation, and integration with nature but are rather hollow when it is considered how much land has been stripped away for the development, along with a sharp increase in motor vehicle journeys and attendant air pollution which the valley will receive once the hotel has fully reopened.
The Wildschoenau has always struck me as a valley that yes, could be ripe for development/exploitation but had so far resisted the euros(€) blandishments as it too, in a similar but tacit way to Bohinj, sought to strike an appropriate balance between tourism, tradition, and agriculture. I am not anti-development nor a BANANA(build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) but the sudden concentration of two significant projects within a small village is a considerable volte face from what Oberau is best known for – and used to.
There is an argument as to whether developments of these kind, assuming at all that they really must happen, should be spread more evenly throughout the valley. I can understand the pros and cons of not wanting to create the effect of ribbon developments, but to shoehorn sizable infrastructure into a small area is also far from ideal. Compromise is therefore hard to find, but when money talks in the Tirol, there are usually many sympathetic ears.
Atop the Markbachjoch mountain, its eponymous alm/hut has recently bitten the dust, to be replaced by something that will presumably satisfy stringent municipal rules with which older builds struggle to comply. It is hoped that what is created in its stead will bear some relation to the original, and not just become another slick mountain restaurant that lacks the soul and authenticity of the initial concept of what were alpine refuges.
I am surprised that development hasn’t been directed towards Auffach, which otherwise seems to be lacking in tourism infrastructure but does benefit from having the Schatzberg lift situated in the village. It does though concern me that one day, Oberau will see the next logical step to be the development of its own cableway, what with it being equidistant between the valley’s two ‘all year round’ gondolas. How much is too much will depend on the lengths the Wildschoenau is willing to go to keep pace, or just attempt to catch up, with its local and regional rivals.
Source material and further information:
Hotel Kellerwirt: http://www.kellerwirt.com/
Hotel Tirolerhof: http://www.hoteltirolerhof.at/site_eng/
Wildschoenau webcams: http://www.wildschoenau.com/en/news/webcams