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Climate change

What’s winter going to be like in the mountains?

Winter is what you make of it: Vorarlberg’s winter sports resorts are adapting to the trend where visitors are no longer spending all their time skiing and are more in search of variety on their winter holidays – it’s a shift that’s also helping the region respond to climate change.

Take winter of 2017/18, for example: if it could be assumed that all winters would be similar, there’d be nothing to worry about. The first snow already arrived in November, a total of 8.8 percent more guests were recorded in December than for the same month of the previous year and winter ended with the third highest level of snowfall since records began. Which was 160 years ago. “But we shouldn’t assume that we’ll be experiencing winters like that regularly in the future,” Markus Niedermair says. “Winters with that much snow won’t be the rule. But rather the exception.”

Markus works for the state government in Bregenz, the capital of Vorarlberg, and is responsible for climate-change issues there. He is appropriately part of the department that is also responsible for tourism. Like all alpine regions where tourism is geared towards winter, Vorarlberg is also concerned about the challenges that the future will be bringing.

And? Is it possible to predict how things are going to turn out? Markus can – at least in general terms. He‘s been given the relevant studies – studies that Vorarlberg itself commissioned. The general rule indicates that, in future, there will be less snow in ski resorts with valley stations that are lower 1,000 metres above sea level. Winter sports will continue to be possible in areas with valley stations above this 1,000-metre mark.

But the details are actually a bit more complicated. Its topography makes the landscape between Kleinwalsertal and Silvretta an extremely varied part of the Alps. The uninterrupted and extensive undulations of the mountain landscape create so-called microclimates that can differ widely from each other.

Change is already happening. Not only in regard to the climate.

So change is definitely coming. In fact, the climate expert says, it’s already been happening for a long while now. And tourism has also been adapting to it for some time. Because it’s not only the climate that’s changing, visitor behaviour is also moving in different directions. And the two developments are complementing each other perfectly.

Brigitte Plemel, who’s been monitoring market developments at Vorarlberg Tourismus for many years, says, “Holidays where visitors were focused entirely on skiing are increasingly turning into winter holidays that incorporate a broad range of different activities.” The way it used to be: get up at seven in the morning, be the first at the lift at half past eight and then skiing all day until the lift closed. And you just pulled your scarf up in front of your face if the snow started to get a bit heavy.

Holidays where visitors were focused entirely on skiing are increasingly turning into winter holidays that incorporate a broad range of different activities.”

Brigitte Plemel

But today’s visitors like to have a lie-in and take their time over a leisurely breakfast. Fine weather makes decisions difficult. Downhill skiing, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the seclusion of the mountains? And it’s back to bed when the sky is grey. Or off to the village for a little shopping. And then meet with friends at the hotel pool, after lunch.

The change in behaviour has been documented in recent visitor surveys. Almost two thirds of those polled said that their main interest remained the classic skiing and snowboarding holiday. But more and more people said they wanted ‘winter holidays in the snow’ and recreational holidays. It’s a shift that’s also reflected in sports-related holiday activities: the proportion of skiers (70 %) and snowboarders (28 %) is consistently high. But the amount of time spent on such other outdoor activities as hiking, snowshoeing and tobogganing has increased at the same time. And cultural and culinary activities are also becoming more and more important to visitors.

“Snow experiences in the mountains remain the most important reason for taking a winter break in Vorarlberg, skiing remains our core product for winter,” Brigitte says. “But holidays are becoming more varied – and that’s also helping us adapt to the consequences of climate change.” Bad weather won’t spoil the holiday when visitors also have an interest in cultural and culinary experiences and similar activities.

People in the tourist industry have long since started to adapt to these changes in visitor and weather behaviour: cable-car operators have continuously improved snow-making over the years, hoteliers have invested in expanding their wellness, rest and relaxation areas. And there are new culinary and cultural experiences for visitors to enjoy.

They’ve also started to transform Vorarlberg into a destination that is becoming increasingly popular throughout the year.

All these efforts have not only extended the winter season. They’ve also started to transform Vorarlberg into a destination that is becoming increasingly popular throughout the year. Skiing holidays in winter, bathing in Lake Constance in summer, hiking in the mountains in autumn. Vorarlberg has established itself as a destination for short breaks from the routines of everyday life – and then there’s the tourism that’s associated with culture and congresses.

Such famous events as the Bregenz Festival and the Schubertiade attract visitors from all over the world. And they’re being increasingly complemented by smaller festivals, often with lots of flair: hip like FAQ in the Bregenzerwald, inventive like the Poolbar Festival in Feldkirch and keen to experiment like the Walser Herbst in the Große Walsertal.

The Kunsthaus Bregenz is home to an internationally renowned range of exhibitions. The Festival House now attracts 200,000 visitors every year to its congresses and events that take place outside the festival season. And, throughout the state, visitors may marvel at Vorarlberg’s fascinating buildings on guided architectural tours.

It’s developed from the region’s efforts and benefits both local residents as well as tourists. It’s an authenticity that holidaymakers can also sense.

Visitors take note when their hotels are powered by biomass and the chef only uses local products.

Regional aspects and sustainability are important to the people of Vorarlberg. All political parties in the state were unanimous in their adoption of energy autonomy as a common political goal. The ‘organic farming strategy’ is also founded on widespread consensus: food has to be produced regionally and organically as far as possible. In tourism, many hotels and restaurants have joined forces to form the ‘Gastgeben auf Vorarlberger Art’ network (‘Welcoming visitors the Vorarlberg way’).

“Visitors naturally take note when their hotels are powered by biomass or when the chef only uses local products,” says Karl-Heinz Kaspar of the Energieinstitut Vorarlberg, who, along with his team, supports the municipalities in Vorarlberg in regard to climate protection. “It’s particularly the younger generation of holidaymakers that is aware of such things. And shares it. It’s something that can’t be underestimated.”

So the circle closes: climate protection and changing tourist attractions go hand in hand. Climate change will, of course, create challenges for Vorarlberg – as it is doing all over the world. But it’s also opening up new opportunities. And making it possible to adapt to visitor needs in a new way. The people across Bregenz, Hirschegg and Partenen have not only already recognised these opportunities: they’ve long since begun to utilise them.