Austria ponders tragedy's lesson

A memorial for victims is set for tomorrow in Salzburg, as accident's cause still sought.

The Alpine cable car disaster that claimed 155 lives on Saturday has deeply shaken Austria, a nation famed for its winter sports. An official memorial service will be held in the cathedral of Salzburg tomorrow to remember the victims of what one Vienna newspaper is calling the nation's "worst catastrophe since 1945."

Rescue workers have begun the task of identifying the bodies and searching for clues that might show why a funicular train ferrying skiers from the village of Kaprun to the 10,500-foot Kitzsteinhorn caught fire in a tunnel. Safety experts and the public alike are puzzling over how the fire started.

"Long-term accident statistics show that the security of Austrian cable cars is extremely high," says Edwin Engel, head of the Institute for Railways and Cable Cars at the Technical University in Vienna. "It's a fact that Austrian security standards for cable cars are among the best in the world." Austria invests more than $250 million yearly in upgrading its some 3,000 ski lifts, according to the daily newspaper Die Presse.

State Secretary for Tourism Mares Rossmann says that five cable-car lines similar to the one on the Kitzsteinhorn have been shut down pending an inspection. "It's important to be 200 percent certain," Ms. Rossmann says.

Along with the focus on safety, officials are concentrating on the accident's possible effects on Alpine tourism.

Yesterday, top representatives of Austria's tourism and recreation industry held an emergency meeting to discuss ways to reassure skiers that Austria is still a safe place for a sport vacation.

"It's important to find out the cause of the accident as fast as possible and get across to the guests what happened," one Kaprun hotel owner told the Vienna daily Der Standard. "That's how you can regain confidence."

The tourism and recreation industry accounts for 14 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

The Kitzsteinhorn region, one of Austria's favorite attractions thanks to its year-round skiing, was the site of another tragedy in March, when 12 people died in an avalanche possibly unleashed by two snowboarders.

The two disasters have cast a pall over the spectacularly beautiful mountain region.

At the same time, they serve as grim reminders of the risks posed by mechanized mass tourism in an environment as delicate - and dangerous - as the Alps.

Austria has the highest share of tourism in the Alps, and millions of skiers flock to the mountainous country every year. Many conservationists question whether tourism in the Alps is reaching its limit. The infrastructural development of more and more valleys brings with it increased pollution from traffic, garbage and a declining water supply.

"Never in history have so many people been in the Alps," says Daniela Grabher of the Bregenz branch of the Austrian Ecology Institute. "So if something happens, many people are affected."

Construction of the daring train line up the Kitzsteinhorn was once seen as a technological wonder in the service of a booming tourist industry.

The development of the region was emblematic for what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

In the 19th century, large groups of foreign visitors started discovering the beauty of the Alps, though their tours usually took place during the summer. The winter sports industry began booming in the 1960s.

In 1965 the village of Kaprun opened a gondola line to the towering Kitzsteinhorn, offering skiers easy access to the mountain's two glaciers. As visitor numbers increased, an additional cable-car line was inaugurated nine years later. The funicular train, which passes through 2 miles of solid rock, was dubbed "the world's first Alpine subway."

On peak days the mountain has 10,000 visitors. And the community of Kaprun, with a population of only 3,000, counts 450,000 overnight stays per year.

"It's typical that the proportions are out of sync with the population," says Angela Rosenlocher, a geographer at the Alpine Research Institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany.

"It's justified to ask whether there shouldn't be limits for infrastructure development," says Ms. Rosenlocher. "The trend is that always more areas are developed to satisfy the additional demand."

The high level of technology, she adds, implies that it is safe.

But the tragedy at Kaprun is a jarring reminder of technology's limits, and has caused nationwide introspection in a country that has come to take weekend skiing excursions for granted.

"What is the special 'quality' of the accident at Kaprun that grips our hearts?" one Vienna columnist wrote. "If we knew that, we would know more about ourselves, our society, and our times."

In the wake of the tragedy, Kaprun has canceled the Snowboard World Cup scheduled for later this year.

Looking forward

Resort operators are taking a pragmatic approach to the area's future, however: There are already plans to increase the region's advertising budget; and a second, older ski-lift up the Kitzsteinhorn could open as soon as this weekend.

While tourism experts expect immediate economic effects in the Kitzsteinhorn region, they do not foresee lasting damage for the industry as a whole.

"Of course there will be effects. But experience shows that people forget quickly," says Herbert Baumhackl, a tourism researcher at the University of Vienna.

The accident has sent a chill through Europe, where ski season will soon move into high gear. Safety inspections on rail and cable car systems have been stepped up in other parts of Europe, including Germany, where checks are being made on the rail system at the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain; and in the French Alps resort of Tignes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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