The most pleasant city in the world to live in will continue to fascinate people with its baroque architecture and abundant cultural activity. Vienna is one of the top 10 most visited cities in Europe, alongside major urban tourism destinations such as Paris, London, Barcelona and Berlin. But its success is beginning to worry. In reality, it is mainly smaller destinations such as the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg, or the alpine village of Hallstatt that feel overcrowded. Hospitality ON assesses the Austrian situation through a comparative analysis of these three case studies. Part 1: What the press and politicians say.
Tourism is an important industry for the Austrian economy. It represents 8.7% of the national GDP in 2017. Compared with France, the world's leading tourist country, tourism accounted for 7% of the national GDP in 2017. In Austria, revenues reached €26.2 billion (+3.7%) in 2018, compared with €13.3 billion (+3.5%) in summer and €14.1 billion (+5.7%) in winter. On average this represents a revenue of €2,057 per inhabitant (ahead of Portugal with €1,437, Greece - €1,342, and Spain - €1,289).
Austria, with its 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites, received 31 million international arrivals in 2018, while it has 8.9 million inhabitants. The country has a ratio of 1 inhabitant for 3.5 tourists. This ratio places the country in the list of destinations where tourist flows are much higher than usual, such as Croatia or Cyprus. But just like these two countries, in Austria too, the number of visitors is concentrated in certain areas, reinforcing even more this feeling of overcrowding places at certain times of the year.
Vienna, the Austrian leading destination
First of all, Vienna accounts for 25.9% of national overnight stays. Norbert Kettner, the director of tourism in Vienna, has put in place a tourism strategy for the city by 2025. This one focuses on business growth "but not at any price". For his part, the Mayor of Vienna, Michael Ludwig, warned against the appropriation of Vienna as a tourist destination:
We don't want to be a purely tourist town, or a fairy tale village, or a Disney town.
He also explained that the challenge of Viennese tourism was to think about how to serve the interests of the inhabitants and the city, "and not the other way around". The municipality has therefore adopted a strategic vision that focuses more on the local population and less on visitors, to prevent the pervasiveness of this industry in a city renowned for its lifestyle.
A spokesperson for Wien Tourismus (Vienna Tourist Office) warned against the negative effects of tourism, such as shoplifting, and souvenir stands:
When something bothers you, it's not the people who visit our city. It is the fast traders who make short-term profits at the expense of public space, hosts and especially the population, but who in the long term destroy the tourist mentality and reputation of a destination.
Public space is a precious asset that must be handled with care.
Salzburg starting to feel fed up of tourism?
Salzburg is the second largest city destination in terms of overnight stays in the country. Nevertheless, the city and its region account for nearly 10% of national overnight stays. Despite this small proportion, tourism is very present in the city center, where an optimized management of the industry is being studied. Helga Rabl-Stadler, an Austrian businesswoman, journalist and politician, testified about Salzburg that "many incentives are needed to control the problem", "problem" being understood as the overcrowding feeling that is felt sometimes.
Bert Brugger, Managing Director of Tourismus Salzburg GmbH (Salzburg Tourist Office), explained that the core of the city's tourism development strategy is based on the management of visitors:
Essentially, we are trying to better manage and direct visitors.
But the exasperation of some inhabitants is already being felt. Indeed, there was an attack on a group of travelers accompanied by a tourist guide on 10 October 2019. On that day, the man hit a group of tourists who was near the Makartsteg Bridge. Before attacking the guide of the group, who broke her arm, the man attacked the Korean tourists she was accompanying, whom he insulted. The tour guide also reports that the summer before she was almost hit by a cyclist who was shouting, "We'll knock you all out!". Such animosity towards tourism did not exist until now in Salzburg, according to her. But it is now a reality and a growing phenomenon.
Is Hallstatt overcrowded?
Our third case study is a village of 780 inhabitants in northwestern Austria. Hallstatt is a picturesque alpine village listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 for its salt deposits and 16th century buildings nestled in the middle of the Austrian Alps. The village announced that it has received about 1 million tourists each year.
These visitors come from Asia to take a couple of photos and leave as soon as they have their Instagram picture. Siegrid Brader of the Citizens for Hallstatt association testifies that these mass flows of tourists have become invading for the inhabitants, saying that "it's been a long time since it's time to stop, too much is too much"; indeed "the people here suffer from noise and attacks".
Siegrid Brader also explained:
Tourists run through the city with their mobile phones in front of their faces. This is not only an imposition for us, but also for guests who want to stay longer and really enjoy Hallstatt.
But for Mayor Alexander Scheutz (a member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria), the growth in the number of tourist buses and visitor cars is a good sign:
Hallstatt was considered a dying village, he said. Now we have good economic development and good incomes. For the first time in a long time, the municipal treasury is no longer in deficit. This also gives the municipality more room for maneuver, because if the figures are in the red, the province of Upper Austria may be subject to strict regulations.
The city's success with visitors comes from the reputation it has acquired through its twin sister built ex nihilo by the China Mine Metal group in Guangdong province, China. This identical replica, which serves as a leisure center, opened in 2012; since then, the small Austrian village has continued to gain in popularity both for visitors and international media. On social networks, the text "#Hallstatt" with picturesque photos propelled the destination into the top 10 most popular tourist sites for Chinese tourists. But this success only increases the irritation of the inhabitants, some of whom are already beginning to say such things as "Hallstatt belongs to the Hallstätter", a speech that is reminiscent of the rise of extreme right-wing sympathizing parties in the 2019 parliamentary elections, such as the Austrian People's Party led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, which won 31.5% of the vote (62 MPs).
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