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Austria’s most iconic tourist town doesn’t miss the tour buses

HALLSTATT, Austria — As Europe emerges from its coronavirus lockdown, many of its top tourist destinations have remained eerily empty and are scrambling to keep afloat economically.

Hallstatt, it turns out, isn’t one of them.

This picturesque town nestled in the Austrian Alps is nearly as packed as it was before the pandemic. But instead of busloads of visitors from all over the world, these days it’s primarily Austrians who are flocking to the town — many of whom are relishing the chance to finally have it (mostly) to themselves.

“It’s like all 9 million Austrians are coming to Hallstatt right now,” said Rebecca Schilcher, owner of Das Dirndl aus Hallstatt, a clothing shop selling traditional Dirndl and Lederhosen on the town’s main square. “I’ve been very positively surprised, truly, because we really didn’t expect this.”

Before the virus shut down international travel, Hallstatt, a historic salt mining town and UNESCO World Heritage site about 75 kilometers from Salzburg, was a prime example of over-tourism in Europe. With a population of just 780, the town received up to 10,000 visitors per day in 2019, many of them arriving via dozens of tour buses.

Before the coronavirus struck, Hallstatt was inundated with daily busloads of foreign tourists | Andreas Gebert/Getty Images

The town is especially popular among tourists from Asia, and from China in particular — so much so that a Chinese mining company even built its own replica of Hallstatt in Guangdong Province. Add to that the common belief that Hallstatt was the real-life inspiration for the kingdom of Arendelle in Disney’s movie “Frozen,” and it’s not hard to see why tourism here has exploded in recent years.

Hallstatt looks like it’s been pulled from a postcard: The iconic view of its church steeple and traditional buildings against the backdrop of towering mountains and a clear blue lake fits all the stereotypes of Alpine beauty. (Type “Austria” into Google and the image results will mostly be pictures of Hallstatt.)

But because of the influx of tourists, the place can feel like an amusement park. Signs along the main street remind visitors not to enter private property or leave trash everywhere and declare the town a “No Drone Zone.” Signs in English and Chinese (though not in German) say: “Hallstatt is no museum. Please show respect to the people living here during your visit/stay.”

Before COVID-19, local officials had agreed on new measures to curb the negative effects of overcrowding, including requiring tour buses to register in advance and limiting the number allowed to visit each day, giving preference to buses that stay longer. But once Austria’s coronavirus restrictions went into place in mid-March and the town was suddenly empty, those debates were moot.

Local business owners and tourism officials have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly things bounced back. Since Austria allowed restaurants to reopen on May 15, and hotels later that month, the town has seen a steady stream of visitors. Having heard horror stories about the crowds, many Austrians wanted a chance to see Hallstatt during a rare respite from mass tourism.

“In the last few years, it was the case that Asian and international guests visited Hallstatt very, very much,” said Christian Schirlbauer, head of the tourism board for the Dachstein Salzkammergut region, which includes Hallstatt. “But now they’re gone, and many Austrians are saying, ‘Now I have the time, now I have the chance, now there aren’t so many people there — now I’ll come as an Austrian and go on vacation in Austria.’”

That message has been echoed by Vienna, which is running a massive advertising campaign encouraging Austrians to vacation domestically this year. (“A good summer is waiting for you: Discover your own country,” is their tagline.)

Its efforts seem to be paying off. On a recent hot, sunny Saturday, Hallstatt was full: People queued outside the town’s many cafés, and parking lots overflowed with cars. But rather than the blend of languages of past years, most everyone was speaking German. Although the town has seen some tourists from neighboring EU countries — including Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary — locals said most visitors had come from somewhere else in Austria.

Elisabeth Weizer and her family made the trip to Hallstatt from Graz, in southern Austria. Walking down the town’s main street, she said they’d come to celebrate her mother’s birthday — and that they’d chosen Hallstatt because they thought the city would be quieter than usual.

At the main viewpoint, Ingrid, a middle-aged blonde woman from Lower Austria, said she and her teenage son had come to Hallstatt for the same reason. Wary of traveling too far this summer, they wanted to take the opportunity to explore places closer to home that they would otherwise give a wide berth.

“There are definitely many beautiful places in Austria that you’ve never seen before,” she said.

Most of the town’s visitors these days are fellow Austrians | Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

Although the steady stream of Austrian day-trippers since the start of the pandemic has been a boon for the town, Hallstatt’s hotels are feeling the absence of tourists from further afield.

Overnight stays in Hallstatt were down 43 percent in June compared with the same time last year, according to figures from the local tourism board. Still, Schirlbauer said that figure is a little misleading because many hotels didn’t reopen until mid-June. Since then, he said, they’ve seen an uptick in bookings.

Local business owners seem largely content with the new crowds. Sandra Derbl, who owns a souvenir shop in Hallstatt’s main square, said the current crop of visitors have been more “eager to buy” and tend to stay longer than those who visit via tour bus. As a result, she’s confident her business will survive.

“At the moment, I won’t go under,” Derbl said. “I’m fine with the way things are … I’m happy with the crowds we have right now.”

What tourism will look like post pandemic, when non-EU travelers are allowed back into the country, is anyone’s guess. Schilcher, the clothing shop owner, predicted international travelers won’t be deterred and tour bus traffic will pick up again quickly. “I think next year it will be exactly like it was before,” she said. “Maybe even more so.”

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/hallstatt-austria-most-iconic-tourist-town-doesnt-miss-the-tour-buses-coronavirus-travel/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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