In the film Day of the Jackal, directed by Oscar winning Austrian Fred Zimmerman, The Jackal, played by Edward Fox, is questioned as he passes across the border from Italy into France. In the scene, about halfway through the film, the Jackal is asked by a typically Frenchesque border official (in impeccable English): “Mr Duggan, what is the purpose of your visit to France?” (Mr Duggan was his hitman nom-de-guere, an identity stolen from a child’s gravestone in a foggy, unnamed English village). His reply, sitting resplendent in his soft-top white 1973 Alfa Romeo Giuletta Spider, is succinct and perfectly weighted and still makes me giggle to this day whenever I travel abroad. “Tourism!” he replies. He is then hauled into the customs post along with other men looking like an assassin and his luggage is inspected for cigarettes, a specially constructed rifle with telescopic lens and any magazines called “Oo, La, La!”
Such scenes are well behind us in most of Europe now (although in Vienna you can relive such a violational rifling of your personal effects every time you go to a supermarket and they ask you to open your bag to search for shoplifted swag) because of one of the cornerstones of the EU: freedom of movement. The exception, glaring and disruptive from the sidelines, is Britain which simply confirms in the minds of most continental Europeans that the nation is a bit peculiar (I do nothing to dispel this unsubstantiated presumption). In any case, Europe seems quite content with such an arrangement, especially in Austria, or at least until your house is burgled by an unnamed band of men from the “east”. And the beneficiary has undoubtedly been tourism. I know of people who would avoid Croatia for their summer holiday for this very reason after they had tried to enter the county by car. Before they joined the EU in 2013, the border crossing demanded a degree of stamina and patience which could test even the most devout of saints. Which given that most of the guests came from Germany and Austria was a Herculean ask. But EU membership is a route to the big time although they still remain outside Schengen, the treaty which enshrines unfettered movement – like the ultimate in cross-border laxatives.
Nevertheless, it has been my intention to tackle the issue of tourism in the number one city ever since the unveiling last year of the 2020 Vienna Tourism Strategy (we covered it briefly in the 2014 Barratt Awards). What is clear is that tourism is essential to the Danube metropolis. Especially if your job is to dress up in tatty costumes last seen in the extras rack of Amadeus and sell tickets for concerts conceived by an impresario with a holiday camp vision of a classical music concert. Such touts can be found outside the main tourists haunts of the capital of Eurovision pouncing on unsuspecting visitors with promises of big wigs, Mozart and gilded ballrooms. Indeed, it is a badge of honour and affirmation of your standing in Viennese cultural assimilation that once they ignore you, you can truly claim to be foreigner class two.
But for the city tourism is worth an incredible three billion Euros a year and according to the Viennese Tourist Board every million Euros spent is worth eleven jobs. (This ratio goes down if these jobs are lobbyists.) And there is growth in the air. The last four years have seen record numbers and 2015 will see 13 million overnight stays for the first time. But the tourist honchos want more, much more, 40 percent more guests, 18 million more overnight stays and a billion in turnover for the capital’s many hotels.
In short, tourism is taken very seriously. There are even schools which specialise in it. (I know. I used to work in one.) Yet my first thought on hearing this was: 18 million more overnight stays? Now I know we have a largish cellar where I keep my mother-in-law and Airbnb and its ilk are sending seismic shockwaves through the hotel and regulatory industries (so they say) but where are they going to stay? More disconcertingly there is also talk of “premium” which for Vienna tourist chief Norbert Kettner means the elusive concept of “quality” irrespective of the category. In his words it will encompass the sausage stand, a hotel room or even a taxi. Apparently the cars have become better – if you think a plasticky people carrier is better than a plush Merc. Or indeed service – the Viennese trump card.
Even our chums (or chumps) over at the Viennese Chamber of Commerce are flexing their Wortschatz with “Global, Smart & Premium.” And no they are not describing the VIP area to a dodgy nightclub which insists on smart shoes and a black credit card and free entry to razor thin women with expensive hair. But it doesn’t stop there. Vienna is an “economic powerhouse” (centre for money laundering), an authentic smart city (intelligent mobility solutions and city technology but no way to pick up the dog shit and cigarette butts) and a concerted policy of quality leadership (more boring, facile McKinsey talk). To top it off there is a magic number – 2020. Again a Stalinesque totem enabling current politicians just enough wiggle-room and years of pension pot enhancement before they mysteriously retire leaving the rest of us are wondering what to do with all those five star palaces that inspired Wes Anderson and the Grand Budapest hotel.
But for now, and given Vienna’s renewed status as the world’s number one city, the strategy includes:
- Improving transport links primarily by air – meaning better connections with other hubs, more flights, establishment of Vienna as the main central European hub.
- Bigger events that fit the image of Vienna.
- Synergies in marketing from various institutions.
- Getting international experts in. Perspectives etc …
The narrative includes talk of a third runway for Vienna’s airport in Schwechat. Not convinced I consulted with an expert in London who knows one or two things about big silver birds in the sky and how they move around the planet. I asked if it was realistic for Vienna to position itself as a major hub. No, he replied, not unless they move from regional to “super hub” (like London, Paris, Amsterdam). But this would need a new runway and terminal and a huge expansion of Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines. Unlikely, he says, as Lufthansa have invested so heavily in Berlin.
Other details refer to the poisoned chalice of Sunday trading. Apparently this “restriction” of business makes Vienna less attractive to visitors. Interestingly, Michael Häupl the Teflon mayor of Austrian politics has nothing against such Sunday opening, it is simply a matter of reaching agreement with the social partners. Then again he, like most of the other middle class whingers demanding the poorly paid and protected serve them seven days a week, don’t have to work on a Sunday (or in Häupl’s case most of the other days of the week if you believe local gossip). And Sunday is the favored day for a trip to the Heuriger. Which is a coincidence because this is Herr Häupl’s hobby.
But “retail” already struggles with a six-day week. The recently opened Golden Quarter in the first district (the renovation and remodeling looks expensive) backed by the youthful billionaire property tycoon René Benko, a project aimed squarely at up-market Russians (no jokes now about oxymorons), is bereft of shoppers. And it is sights such as these that should appeal with great clarity to the very notions of “premium” or “quality” that Vienna seemingly craves.
Such a lack of footfall is clearly a worrying sign. But equally it is all the proof you need to exemplify the hazard of relentless expansion in visitor numbers, particularly with a focus on the economically fickle deluxe guest (deluxe is the old word for premium). But wait at minute! What about the Viennese plan to increase guests? By stressing quantity (more visitors) over quality (er, Russians) in spite of the “premium” protestations seems faintly contradictory. Either they want the cake or not (and to eat it).
Yet it is not simply a problem for high/low-rollers flashing the woollah. There is a huge local human cost in spite of the economic benefits. To quote an unnamed tourist expert, “Look at Dubrovnik and Venice on how tourists have fucked those two cities”. Indeed, as I wrote last year, I used to think that Vienna could escape such overkill but the mention of strategy is making me tetchy. It will mean more coaches clogging the streets, more patrons in my favourite cafes and more disruption of the essential fabric of social-local life.
In the next installment, then, we will attempt to examine Vienna’s on-going relationship with tourism. Not from a number crunching or statistic perspective, more as an outsider living in the inside with a face like sleepy bulldog. I know the evidence is everywhere and easy to find, more so if you can evade the Mozart chuggers. And where better than downtown? To mingle with the throng. To avoid English for fear of being accosted by Amercians. And to walk into people with their heads in smartphones. Yes, Herr Border Guard, it is time for tourism!
© RJ Barratt 2015