Sustainable Skiing in Salzburg

The tiny resort of Werfenweng is now internationally known as one of the first to offer ‘carbon neutra’ holidays, but the project alone will not rescue the Alpine environment

On The Town | Christian Cummins | April 2011

If you can’t win the game, why not make up a new game and play by your own rules. As many of Austria’s ski resorts fight an expensive and ecologically destructive war of ever more bombastic consumption – offering  new 8-man chairlifts with heated seats, flood-lit night skiing and multi-story car parks – Werfenweng has chosen a different path.

The tiny Salzburg resort, with a limited ski area and a dodgy snow record, is now internationally known from the Hida Mountains of Japan to the Rocky Mountains of North America as one of the first winter resorts to offer ‘carbon neutral’ holidays.

That Werfenweng is a bit different is apparent as soon as you approach the village on a windy road up from the local transport hub of Bischofshofen. A wall of solar panels lines a south facing slope, already green after another unseasonably warm February. More solar panels are mounted on pillars and dotted around the centre of the community, including, picturesquely, in the frozen village pond. They provide the community with 50% of its energy needs and power the space-age looking streetlamps that line the main road.

Under a wooden shelter, you’ll find a fleet of eco-cars, available for rent by tourists and named Grashüpfer because they are powered by biodiesel harvested from the grass of local Alpine meadows. In summer you can rent electronic bikes, which you can recharge at a solar-filling station at the centre of the village.  The motto of the project is "soft mobility" - in short, you leave your car at home.

A free shuttle minibus picked me up from the train station at Bischofshofen and, on showing my train ticket, I was given a special credit card sized "Samo card"  (from Sanfte Mobilität) that gave me access to free taxi rides, equipment and guides for carbon-free sports like snow-shoe trekking, cross country skiing or even, believe it or not, lama trekking.  You can get the card even if you arrive by car, but you have to hand over the keys to your vehicle at the tourism office first.

Thirty percent of Austria’s carbon emissions come from transport and these emissions are particularly damaging in the fragile Alpine environment. The mountains remain a major transit zone, the roads carrying freight to all corners of Europe but also hundreds of thousands of tourists into once quiet valleys. Small particle air pollution often reaches alarming levels and any project to address this impact is bound to attract interest. But the inverted commas in Werfenweng’s ‘carbon neutral’ are not accidental. It remains more a target that reality.

The idea in Werfenweng is that you reduce your carbon footprint by the progressive transport system and the excess is off - set by through carbon payments. The village is certainly no eco-utopia - at least not yet - and the more idealistic guests sometimes leave disappointed. Cars still speed up and down the main road and from my hotel balcony I could see guests swimming in an outdoor heated pool. It’s hard to see the carbon saving in taking a free diesel-powered taxi to a restaurant rather than driving yourself, and while the ski-bus runs on biogas, the ski lifts do not.

So is Werfenweng just a marketing gag? I would be more inclined to think so if it weren’t for the honesty and openness of the mayor Peter Brandauer, who was once, at 28 years of age, the youngest mayor in Austria, and who is very much the pioneer of this project. Werfenweng has come a long way, yes, but he freely admits that it’s still a long got way to go. His project is new and unusual; and new and unusual tends to be a hard-sell in Alpine communities.

"Look," he tells me, "We could have banned all motorized traffic and stopped using all fossil fuel-based energy, but then I would no longer be mayor and the project would no longer exist."

Instead he chose what he calls "the path of a thousand small steps." He sold the project to an initially skeptical community with economic arguments rather than ideological ones, arguing that this was the way to raise the resorts profile.  Dissent was widespread, but as the number of guests rose, almost doubling in the first years of the project, the community was won over. Locals started to benefit from the free shuttle service and appreciate the reduction in traffic. The project remains voluntary but 42 hotels now offer soft mobility holidays, says Brandauer, equaling some 80% of the available guest beds. He’d like to see the village totally free of cars and the outdoor heated swimming pools but, returning to his metaphor,

"We have got 500 or 600 of those steps left," he says. "But we have to take them by including the community, not alienating them."

Brandauer is, of course, under no illusion that little Werfenweng’s sustainability project is going to rescue the fragile Alpine environment on its own. Climate change is coming to the Alps, whatever happens here. All scientific models show a steadily climbing snow line and more frequent mid-winter warm spells that made a farce of the recent World Championship ski races and have left the slopes around Werfenweng bare in late February.

But he sees the project, with its European Union funding, as a "beacon of light" for other resorts. He laughs when I liken him to Don Qixote, and says it sometimes does feel like he’s fighting against windmills. But his green vision seems less hopeless than the attempts of low-lying Alpine ski resorts to prolongue their winter seasons by investing in ever more energy-guzzling snow canons. And it’s canny to recognize the market advantages of a project what will surely be a necessary transition for all resorts sooner rather than later.

Werfenweng is small but the idea is being exported. Twenty four Alpine villages, including Hinterstoder, Mallnitz and Neukirchen am Großvenediger are now part of a transnational co-operation in soft mobility called Alpine Pearls that was founded in 2006 with the aim of promoting sustainable tourism in the Alps. Brandauer says this loose coalition negotiates with business and politicians about subsidies and offers that make green travel attractive to tourists.

One of the more revolutionary ideas of the mayor of tiny Werfenweng is that future Alpine holidays will have to be less dependent on skiing. He says our current culture of frantically crunching away kilometers on the piste is not what holidays are about.  He wants to see a more laid-back culture return to the Alps in winter – enthastet, a word meaning free of pressure, seems to be his favourite word. With me he had his work cut out for him.  I’m a recovering ski addict who celebrates when my pass shows I’ve taken 10,000 meters of lift altitude in a day. I often come back from ski trips in need of a holiday to recover. So could I, an adrenaline junkie, chill out in a ski resort without getting bored?

Brandauer put me in the hands of a series of carbon-free Waltrauds. One, Waltraud Herrmann, took me on a free snow-shoeing trip in the secluded, wooded countryside far away from the pistes and then Waltraud Steiger took me on a ride on a sled drawn by two flatulent horses that farted their way through the slushy countryside. She says it was key to get the local businesses support "soft mobility" on an emotional level. "How could we convince our guests of the scheme until we believed it in ourselves?"

At first the guests were suspicious of the scheme. Few wanted to hand over their keys, fearing that they’d feel trapped. But the taxi service proved efficient and holiday makers to Werfenweng were converted, with more and more people turning up at the tourism office asking for a Samo Card. When the project began, the percentage of people arriving by train was eight percent. Today it’s 25 %. Steiger says the guests are more reluctant in summer when, despite organized bus tours to Salzburg and the castle at Hohenwerfen, guests want the freedom to explore the wider region.

And by championing a more diversified, softer version of the winter holiday, places like Werfenweng are getting welcome publicity for facing an issue now that surely most resorts will have to face one day.

"There has to be a change in attitudes," says Brandauer. Do we really need heated seats on lifts? Can more energy-efficient snow machines be created? Do we really need to keep expanding the Alpine ski resorts? Is bigger always necessarily better? Brandauer thinks the current tourism model is simply unsustainable – he might not be about to save the Alps, but he is raising interesting questions, as well as, quite conveniently, the profile of his tiny mountain community.

Other articles from this issue