Responsible tourism in Austria

Austria might conjure visions of pastoral bliss and alpine pasture, but not all of it is farmland by any means. In fact, with 50% of the county covered by trees, Austria is one of Europe’s most heavily wooded countries. It has six national parks and 50 nature parks, and its own ‘big five’ to match an African Safari – look out for ibex, chamois, snow grouse, golden eagles and bearded vultures. The Alps have resisted development for millennia – and have long been considered an area of beauty, rather than a region to be exploited.

Some 980,000 Brits visit Austria every year, but that’s nothing. Domestic tourism in Austria accounts for nearly half of all visitors. The message is loud and clear: no one loves and appreciates Austria like the Austrians themselves. You only have to look down from the top of a mountain, down into a bowl-like valley filled with blue lakes and bijou villages, to see why the country is so dearly beloved. But this is not enough to protect Austria from threats to its natural world – climate change and biodiversity loss are disproportionately affecting the Alps. This is changing how we vacation in Austria, and the nature we enjoy when we’re there.

How is climate change affecting Austria vacations?

The Austrian Alps are being significantly affected by climate change. In 2014, the Austrian Climate Change Assessment Report stated that average temperatures in Austria had risen by close to 2°C since 1880, whilst global temperatures rose by only 0.85°C.

How is climate change affecting winter sports in Austria?

The change in temperature affects one of Austria’s biggest tourism industries: winter sports. The ski set are so crucial to business that some resorts generate a third of their annual profits in the five or so days between Christmas and New Year. Warmer winters mean that there isn’t necessarily enough snow in December to cover this valuable period. When the white stuff is thin on the ground, wasteful and expensive snow cannons are used to create artificial snow, and snow is even ‘harvested’ in good years and stored under mounds of sawdust, to be used in lean periods.

The result is that anyone coming for a skiing vacation should be under no illusion that they are engaging with the natural world: with the expensive infrastructure and snow-making apparatus in play, downhill skiing resorts are disengaged from the reality of mountain life – until things get serious. Climate change doesn’t just mean no snow – it can also mean more extreme weather. Three off-piste skiers died in an avalanche in 2018, a year when heavy snow caused havoc. Lottie Joynes, from our partner WearActive, experienced the extremes first hand from their base in East Tyrol, “We are already experiencing extreme weather events across the Alps. The winter of 2018 was a really good example. Austria had the largest snowfall that it’s experienced in 50 years. You might have read about the avalanches that made the news. For people who live remotely, their way of life is becoming unfeasible. Even for us, it’s hard to get up and down the road to our lodge if we have extreme snowfalls.” Climate change brings unpredictability to the Alps. You’ll find that safe vacations are harder to plan, with more likelihood of disruption.

Snowfall is decreasing, too. Austria’s lower-altitude resorts – such as famously swanky Kitzbühel – are already seeing meagre snowfall. Dachstein, a high-altitude glacier that is usually popular for autumn skiing, announced that it would close for the 2022/2023 ski season. The ice has melted, creating crevasses and destabilising the ski lifts, making skiing here too dangerous. As glaciers contract, and the snow season becomes ever more unpredictable, some tourists are already swapping their skis for hiking boots; winter hiking vacations are slowly increasing in popularity among German visitors, but the rate of change is too slow; most people are still coming to Austria for downhill skiing. Resorts bounced back after Covid-19, announcing, by April 2022, comparable visitor numbers to pre-pandemic figures. Those who come here to ski may increasingly find that their resorts are using a blend of last year’s snow, respread, and snow blasted out of costly snow cannons; two measures that place a strain on the environment as resorts strive to maintain the illusion of a winter wonderland. Skiers may also find their resorts’ heavy use of artificial snow reflected in the increasing cost of their vacation.

What you can do:
Help Austria extend its tourist season by not just coming to the mountains for snow. In the summer, the Alps are amazing and a whole network of hiking trails open up beyond the pistes; some resorts are even turning their woodland ski routes into mountain bike trails. And find out what you can do to lower your carbon footprint whilst you’re on vacation. Studies of the emissions associated with winter sports vacations show that it’s still accommodation and food that make the biggest impact (58.3 percent), whilst ski-related emissions - piste grooming, lift operation, account for just 3.8 percent.

Environment and wildlife

Austria’s Big Five

The Alpine ‘Big Five’ are the stars of the region – the golden eagle, bearded vulture, snow grouse, ibex and chamois. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, the ibex and the bearded vulture were extinct in Austria, and it was partly thanks to folklore.

The bearded vulture was dogged by a gruesome reputation for centuries. It was rumoured to carry away children and, thanks to its red-rimmed eyes, was associated with the Devil. It was hunted by farmers until it became extinct. It’s only more recently that this amazing bird is getting the love it deserves. It has a powerful, bone-crushing beak and a wingspan of up to 2.9m. Sightings are still incredibly rare, but the Hohe Tauern National Park is a great place to keep your eyes peeled. The bird was reintroduced here back in 1989.
The vulture might have had an image rehaul, but the ibex finds itself on shaky ground. It has always been legal to hunt ibex in Austria, but climate change is a new, bigger threat which could cull their numbers. As glaciers recede, there is less water, less pasture, and less food in the Alps. As the Alps get hotter and drier, thick-coated goats suffer in the heat, and are forced to climb higher in search of food. Overall, Austria’s vertebrate populations have declined by 70% since 1986, and it’s human activity: putting pressure on resources, and destabilising the climate, that’s to blame.

What you can do:
You can donate to support parks like the Hohe Tauern National Park and visit the parks with responsible operators who treat wildlife and landscape with respect. Of course, on your home turf, you should vote in politicians who take climate change seriously, and get involved with local and national activism. Austrians already are.

Are there lynx and wolves in Austria?

Lynx were reintroduced into Austria a few years ago to great fanfare (despite the rehabilitation of the Alpine Big Five being a bigger deal for biodiversity). Lynx came slinking back into Austria, along with Slovenia, Croatia, France, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, where they hunt roe deer and chamois. Austria’s central location in Europe makes it especially important as a breeding ground for the cats. Think of it as a mountain mingler, where they can meet, and eventually diversify and strengthen their gene pools. A Lynx Trail runs between Styria, Upper and Lower Austria, but there remain very few around. “The reintroduction of the ibex and the bearded vulture are really big success stories for the Alps,” says Lottie Joynes, from our partner WearActive, “but the lynx gets more press. There are very few lynx in the Alps – and they are found in the north, in upper Austria.” Alongside lynx, there are estimated to be between 20 and 40 wolves in Austria – not many compared to other European countries. There are a few, but not many, brown bears.
There’s growing evidence that these predators do a lot of good for the environment. Big predators keep deer populations in check, which in turn allow vegetation to thrive. And when you get more trees on riverbanks, their roots help keep the banks intact and the water clearer of sediment, improving water quality for freshwater fish. The benefits of apex predators literally ‘trickle down’, visibly benefitting the whole alpine environment. However, the introduction of large predators, such as wolves, remains a delicate subject among alpine farmers, hunters, biologists and conservationists – as wolf numbers increase, a change in the law allowed wolves to be hunted. In 2022, farmers demonstrated outside a Hohe Tauern Carinthia National Park conference on wolf reintroduction. There are no easy answers when humans and animals compete in a shared space.

What you can do:
It’s unlikely you’ll have first-hand encounters with Austria’s shy carnivores, and that’s a good thing. Limiting human encounters with predators actually helps them thrive: a ‘live and let live’ policy, if you will.

Responsible tourism tips in Austria

You can swim in many Alpine lakes, but it’s worth checking locally before you dive in. And be aware that there may be more naturists about than you’re used to: from saunas to the big wide world, people are quite relaxed about nudity in Austria. Don’t go chasing waterfalls – unless you’re wearing a helmet. Canyoning can be very dangerous without proper equipment and a guide. If you need Alpine Rescue, call 140. The European emergency number 112 is valid for the whole of Europe – Austria included. If you’re a member of the European Union, carry your European Health Insurance Card to show you don’t have to pay for medical treatment. When you use public transport you must buy and then validate (stamp) your paper ticket before you actually step on the bus, the tram or the train, or you might have to pay a hefty fine.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Robert J Heath] [How is climate change affecting winter sports in Austria?: GT1976] [Austria’s Big Five: Mikes1978] [Are there lynx and wolves in Austria?: Böhringer Friedrich]