Felicity Long
Felicity Long

For European tourist offices nowadays, the road to self-promotion is a delicate balance. Yes, they want to lure visitors to their destination, but they also want -- or should want -- to protect their country and the well-being of their residents from unmanageably large hordes of tourists.

This year, Austria is an example of a destination facing that challenge head-on.

Using the definition of sustainable development set forth by the U.N.'s World Tourism Organization -- "Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities" -- Austrian tourism is looking ahead with a sense of purpose, according to Michael Gigl, regional manager for the U.S. and Australia at the Austrian Tourist Office.

"Austria's government approach and commitment to the practice of a responsible form of tourism are part of our government charter," Gigl said. "Just under two years ago, a detailed roadmap for responsible tourism practices and development was created, with broad input from over 500 stakeholders," he said, adding that the charter has been renewed by the country's new government. 

As a result, the Austrian Tourist Office, along with its regional/destination partner DMOs, is no longer marketing internationally with quantitative tourism growth in mind, Gigl said. Instead, it's all about quality.

Of course, no one is saying that size doesn't matter. 

In 2019, Austria welcomed 46 million guest arrivals worldwide, and of those, the U.S. ranked among the strongest-performing source markets, Gigl said, adding that the tourist office is increasingly focusing its marketing in the U.S. on the luxury segment.

In fact, for the first time since 1990, American travelers surpassed the 2 million overnight mark in Austria's official hotel statistics. Further, these statistics don't even include travelers visiting the country on river cruises.

But while celebrating these numbers, the country is mindful to protect itself from overtourism.

Interestingly, some of these strategies aren't new.

"I believe Austria has a certain advantage in the sense that tourism has been an important part of our economy for a very long time, and it is not a sudden phenomenon," Gigl said.

For example, Austria has historically focused on authentic immersive experiences in smaller communities and touted the family ownership of the vast majority of its hotels and tourism businesses. 

The tourist office is also renewing its focus on rail travel, both for environmental reasons and to encourage visitors to fan out across the country. 

This doesn't mean that there are no promotional efforts aimed at the A-list cities. 

"Tourism is still very much seen as a big benefit by the local population, including in Vienna," Gigl said. "That said, the challenges and the potential of overtourism are definitely more present in the daily conversation than just a couple of years ago."

Gigl said that while crowd management can be an issue, especially during high season, he stressed that most crowds comprise short-term travelers and day visitors, not travelers staying a couple of nights at a destination.

"Special permit control for tour busses  is one of the mechanisms that destinations like Salzburg and Hallstatt are responding with," he said. "We see this during the Christmas market period, for example, where we have both day visitors coming in by bus from neighboring countries as well as high number of river cruise passengers."

One of the ways Vienna, in particular, is dealing with crowds is by "broadening its storytelling to include highly interesting parts of the city that are outside the main 1st District attractions." 

"The Beethoven year is actually a good example [Vienna will be at the center of Beethoven's 250th birthday celebration this year], as Beethoven lived in quite a few places in Vienna, and the Beethoven museum is in the 19th District, in one of his former residences."

Also likely to draw a significant number of visitors is the Salzburg Festival, a high-profile classical music event that will celebrate its 100th birthday this summer. 

A new approach to marketing these big anniversaries is a push by the tourist office to also promote "hidden treasures" in the immediate vicinity of its top destinations, like Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck.

Examples include the "stunningly scenic Salzkammergut Lake District and the Arlberg region, a hikers' paradise during the quieter summer season," Gigl said.

And the once-in-a-decade Oberammergau Passion Play, set to take place in the neighboring German state of Bavaria from May through October, is expected to draw Americans looking to visit the Alpine regions of Tirol and Salzburg.

Travel advisors can get suggestions and information about these destinations through webinars and newsletters provided by the Austrian Tourist Office.

To be added to the travel advisor mailing list for regular updates, webinar and event invitations, advisors can email Marsa Kindl-Omuse at [email protected] for detailed information.

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