BBC – Travel – Austria’s tiny village with 10,000 day-trippers

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Selena Taylor makes her living road-tripping across continents and flying to disparate locations, but each place she visits must have a certain aesthetic. As a travel blogger and photographer, Taylor hunts out the world’s most charming destinations and shares her exploits with her 175,000 Instagram followers.

“Knowing your audience is key,” said Taylor on what makes a post popular.

In February 2020, Taylor visited the village of Hallstatt, located in Austria’s Salzkammergut region, that’s beloved by Instagrammers and influencers for its scenic beauty. She was drawn to the “charming homes and cafes, beautiful backdrops and prime location on the water,” she said. “Hallstatt has grown popular in recent years and it checks a lot of boxes that make it appealing.”

The world had stopped turning. It was frightening, quiet and calm

Taylor spent several days wandering the streets of this fairy-tale village, drinking coffee amongst the mountain landscape and watching the sun set across the lake. But a month after Taylor ticked Hallstatt off her bucket list, this tiny village went from one of the most Instagrammed places on Earth, according to Harper’s Bazaar, to experiencing something it hasn’t for years.

Silence.

At this time of year, the village of near 800 people would ordinarily open its doors to almost 10,000 daily visitors. The sound of reversing coaches and conversation in countless languages would fill the air, and the sky would be illuminated by flashes from digital cameras.

On 16 March, though, lockdown was implemented across Austria, changing everything for the locals who call Hallstatt home. “It was like living in a ghost village,” said Hallstatt resident Sonja Katharina. “The world had stopped turning. It was frightening, quiet and calm. There were no cars, no buses and no tourists. We could even hear the swans swimming.”

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As the initial shock made way for the warmer spring months, Katharina has been enjoying the benefits of solitude. She can drive through the streets without risk of oncoming pedestrians and spends her days cycling the Seestraße, or “Lake Street”, Hallstatt’s most photographed road that would usually be packed with around 4,000 tourists per day.

“The positives were that we had time to speak to each other – from a distance of course,” Katharina laughed. “We don’t have to hurry, and you learn to think about what is really important in life.”

Like Katharina, others are cherishing the change in pace. “The drop in tourism happened more or less completely unexpectedly,” said local musician Gerhard Hallstatt. “All of a sudden, Hallstatt has gone back to its roots.”

A decade ago, the village received around 100 visitors a day. Now, pre-Covid-19, reports  more than 1 million overnight stays per year. In the summer months, many travel from across Asia, the US and UK; while in autumn and winter, tourists from nearby countries like Poland, Hungary, Germany and Czech Republic are enticed by the many mountain biking, climbing and hiking trails open at points throughout the year.

Why is Hallstatt so popular? Some reasons are easily explained. Hallstatt and the surrounding region was awarded in 1997 for its magnificent Alpine landscape and ancient salt mining tradition. Its salt mine – one of the world’s oldest – welcomed 19,700 visitors from January until 15 March this year, all keen to learn the history of these 7,000-year-old tunnels or stare out at the mesmerising views of the salt lake.

Since lockdown hit, it’s been zero. And while locals may be reconnecting with their roots, this also brings uncertainty.

“Hallstatt has always been a tourist hot spot, so a lot of people have lost their work or have reduced working hours,” said Kurt Reiger, CEO of the Hallstatt salt mine. “It doesn’t feel like having an old town back because our old town was always filled with tourists, a situation we love.”

All of a sudden, Hallstatt has gone back to its roots

Other reasons for Hallstatt’s allure are more unexpected. In 2006, episodes of the popular South Korean soap opera Spring Waltz were filmed in and around Hallstatt, which introduced the village to millions in Asia.

And Chinese tourists flock here too, partly thanks to the Chinese mining company Minmetals, which in 2012 unveiled a life-size replica of Hallstatt in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Since then, tourists have travelled thousands of miles to experience the real thing. The build reportedly cost more than 6.5bn yuan (£738m) and acts as a high-end property development for the wealthy, rather than the “pearl of Austria” as the original is known.

Travellers also descend on Hallstatt thanks to the hugely popular animated film Frozen. Many people believe that Hallstatt’s spires and frosted mountaintops are the inspiration behind much of Frozen’s fictional fantasy land, the kingdom of Arendelle. There is just one problem to this claim. It isn’t true.

“When it comes to Frozen, that’s just rumours,” said Gregor Gritzky, CEO of the local tourist board Dachstein Salzkammergut. “We’ve had international press ask about it, but it’s all rumour.” In reality, the true inspiration behind Frozen is found in several locations across Norway, from Oslo’s Akershus Fortress to the old merchant quarter of Bryggen, Bergen.

What can be accurately believed, however, is that the village’s reputation as Austria’s most beautiful location has perhaps made Hallstatt too Instagram-friendly. Searching #Hallstatt on Instagram brings up more than 600,000 perfectly framed holiday snaps from tourists in choreographed poses.

“Tourism has two sides of the coin. There have been challenges with the number of guests, but it’s good for the municipality to have tourists,” Gritzky said. “We want people to do more than just take a picture, not get off the bus and go to the next place.”

The people of Hallstatt are glad to share the beauty of the village with friends and guests from all over the world

While bringing obvious financial benefits, this level of tourism, has come with side effects. Some locals have complained of tourists turning up unannounced in their gardens, and drones are a common grievance. In January, Hallstatt’s tourism chiefs took steps to limit tourist buses to 50 per day.

But, while more recent travel restrictions due to Covid-19 have given locals some well-deserved rest, many residents are beginning to miss the visitors.

“It’s a beautiful feeling to have some empty lanes for ‘ourselves’, but the people of Hallstatt are glad to share the beauty of the village with friends and guests from all over the world,” Gerhard Hallstatt said. “The villagers – like all those who live in touristy areas – have a certain love-hate relationship to tourism, but a huge amount of the population depends on it.”

There is good news for the village’s recovery, as local tourists are beginning to return as lockdown measures ease across Austria. In mid-May, Simon König and his partner, who live around an hour’s drive from Hallstatt, took the golden opportunity to “visit this beautiful place without the mass tourism”.

“It’s never been so beautiful,” König remembered. “When we arrived, there were literally no people around except the locals working on their properties. Around midday, some people came from the surrounding communities for the same reason we did.”

In Hallstatt, some hotels have just reopened, and so too have the famous salt mines. There are still more challenges to come: “I think tourism will take time [to return], but one of the biggest questions is who will be able to come and in what timespan?” said Gritzky.

But for Taylor, Hallstatt hasn’t lost what makes it special, even if it remains off limits “Hallstatt is particularly unique,” she said. “It is one of the few ‘trendy’ destinations that really exceeds expectations in person.”

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www.bbc.com 2020-06-04 21:05:21

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