Austria, better known as a destination for opera buffs and Sound of Music fans than hip holidaymakers--is seeking to reposition itself as a country with one foot planted firmly in the past but the other on culture’s cutting edge.
“We want to sell the past but also the future,” Petra Stolba, chief executive officer of the Austrian National Tourist Office (ANTO), told reporters at the actb ’08, which recently wrapped up in Vienna.
Stolba said that Austria’s undeserved reputation as a “quiet” and “cozy” destination ignores the country’s vibrant cultural, culinary and outdoors scene.
The image makeover comes as Austria gears up to co-host what will be the biggest sporting event in the Central European country’s historythe 2008 European soccer championship, June 7-29. While Austria’s team has few expectations of capturing a trophy, the country is optimistic that the games will do for tourism what the 2006 FIFA World Cup did for neighbor Germany, which saw a sharp spike in visits after hosting the international soccer championship two years ago.
Participants at the Jan. 27-29 trade show were treated to a hip-shaking preview of Austria’s rebranding with an opening-night performance at Vienna’s neo-Gothic City Hall by cast members from “We Will Rock You,” the Queen-themed rock opera that runs through July in the Austrian capital.
Held at Vienna’s sprawling Messe Wien convention center Jan. 27-29, the austrian and central european travel business ’08 trade showknown as actbattracted 338 exhibitors, 852 buyers from more than 58 countries, and 173 journalists from 40 countries.
Despite a dip in visits by Americans, 2007 was a good year for Austrian tourism. Arrivals from all countries topped 31 million, up 3.3 percent from 2006. Stolba blamed the weak dollar for a 4 percent decrease in visits by Americans, to 580,000.
Trendwise, Austria is seeing more interest in luxury hotels over less expensive lodging and an uptick in domestic tourism. Nationals account for one third of arrivals, followed closely by Germans. The United States accounts for only about 2 percent of Austria arrivals.
Regional officials expect that the Dec. 21, 2007, elimination of border controls between Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia will be a boon for Central European tourism. Tour buses now whisk past abandoned border posts.
Actb ’08 marked the second consecutive year that Austria has mounted a regional trade fair with neighbors Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia, and the Die Danau-Danube Tourist Commission, made up of Germany, Romania, Serbia, Moldova and Croatia.
The regional show made sense to U.S. tour operators and travel agents, many of whom combine Austria with side trips to Prague, Budapest and other easy-to-reach Central European destinations.
“It’s a win-win situation. We’re able to meet suppliers from the various countries and the ANTO is able to defray costs,” said Baruch Epstein, a Pembroke Pines, Fla., tour operator who puts together small-group excursions.
“I thought (the show) was fantastic,” added Sherman Oaks, Calif., tour operator Matthew Klein of Continental Journeys. “I met with many of my current suppliers and some prospective new ones.”
Klein’s pre-convention tour to Vienna, Lower Austria and the Burgenland region in eastern Austria will be helpful as he puts together a 2009 itinerary focusing on the life and works of composer Joseph Haydn. Austria next year marks the bicentennial of the death of the “father of Viennese classical music” with a series of concerts, operas, exhibitions and tours. Also in 2009, Austria will fete the Danubian city of Linz, a European Union “city of culture” for 2009.
While pleased with the vendor turnout at the show, some members of the U.S. delegation were less enthusiastic about seating arrangements for the opening night festivities, not in the splendidly ornate Council Chamber but in a side room where they watched the stage show via a live video feed. Some Americans felt the seating reflected the reduced importance of the American market relative to emerging markets such as Russia and China.