Last spring, Ischgl, in western Austria, became a coronavirus hot spot. With a strong hygiene concept, things are expected to run better this season. But lockdown and travel warnings are dampening expectations.
November 26 was supposed to be a new beginning. Ischgl had been preparing for this day for months. The western Austrian mountain town wanted to be the safest ski resort in Europe this season, after having failed to take adequate steps to contain the spread of the coronavirus last spring.
But then the number of infections in Austria started to rise dramatically. The partial lockdown, which had been in force since the beginning of November, was tightened on Tuesday. This highly restrictive lockdown, which includes a full-day curfew, will remain in effect until December 6.
The start of the ski season, the longed-for new beginning, has been postponed until mid-December. But whether skiing can actually begin at that time will depend on how effective the lockdown is and whether the number of infections declines.
"It's a catastrophe because we have no planning security at all," Andreas Steibl, managing director of the Paznaun-Ischgl Tourism Association, said in an interview with DW.
Since spring, Ischgl has invested around €700,000 ($829,122) in a hygiene concept which, according to Steibl, "goes far beyond the official measures." The health of guests and staff has top priority, he emphasized.
Winter sports enthusiasts should take a coronavirus test, if possible, and the results should be no older than 72 hours upon arrival in Ischgl. Those who have not had a test can have one done onsite at their own expense. However, testing is only mandatory for employees, who must be tested before starting work and then at regular intervals.
The winter sports region Ischgl-Samnaun on the border between Austria and Switzerland relies on revenue from tourists from abroad
Guidance system for cable cars
Apart from tests and hygiene measures, distancing rules are particularly important. This applies above all else to cable cars that travel up the mountainsides. However, it was already apparent in October that not all ski vacationers take such measures seriously. Photos shared on social media showed winter sports enthusiasts romping around the cable car stations of the Hintertux and Kaunertal glaciers.
Steibl said that such conditions must be avoided at all costs and that a guidance system with cameras that measure proximity has been installed in Ischgl to explain to visitors exactly where they should stand and how long they should wait. Cable car employees and security personnel can intervene via loudspeakers and, if necessary, even personally if the regulations are disregarded, Steibl said.
In the cable car cabin itself, as in all other ski areas in Austria, strict distance and hygiene rules apply. A protective mask, which is included in the Ischgl ski pass this winter, is obligatory. This also applies to the waiting area. Guests are also instructed to ventilate the cable car cabins during the ride. In addition, the local cable car operators have promised to disinfect the cars several times a day.
A new way of enjoying apres-ski
For many, the alpine resort was not only a winter sports paradise but also a party stronghold. But there will be no apres-ski parties in Ischgl this year — at least not as there have been in previous years.
"It will simply be different than usual," said Bernhard Zangerl, who runs the Ischgl bar-restaurant Kitzloch. It was here that several holidaymakers were infected with the coronavirus in March during an apres-ski party, Zangerl told DW. That's why this winter there will be no loud music, no dance floor and no wait staff at the bar — just like everywhere else in Ischgl. Food and drinks may only be consumed sitting down. The number of guests is also limited, just like in the mountain huts. Anyone wishing to eat or drink something must register, either via the Ischgl app or with a form.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Bernhard Zangerl is sure that this season could still be a success. "It is important that we open this winter as well," the Kitzloch owner said. However, he will only be able to hire about half as many staff as last season. "So the business can be economically viable even under coronavirus conditions — provided, of course, that guests still come," Zangerl said.
German travel warning hits Ischgl hard
But this remains questionable since Ischgl predominantly draws international guests. Many winter vacationers might do without a ski vacation abroad this winter due to the coronavirus restrictions in Austria and in their home countries.
Germany's travel warning in particular hits Ischgl hard: Around half of all guests who visit the Alpine resort every year come from Germany.
"This is a loss that cannot be compensated," Steibl said. He hopes the German travel warning will be lifted as soon as the health situation allows this.
Zangerl also wants to welcome German guests to his restaurant again as soon as possible. "A German travel warning is harmful not only for Ischgl but for all of Austria," the innkeeper said.
Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Ischgl remain confident. Market research shows that many Germans would like to come to Ischgl to ski despite the coronavirus pandemic, Steibl explained. "The desire is definitely there."