Speaking to the Tiroler Tageszeitung newspaper, WKÖ President Christoph Leitl said that the last thing he wants is a fence at the border.
His comments follow the government's announcement earlier this month that tighter border controls, including fences and increased police patrols, will be introduced along Austria's southern borders to try and stem the flow of refugees and migrants into the region.
Tourism bosses have also added their concerns to the mix, warning that increased border controls are a major setback to an already struggling tourism industry in Tyrol.
Integration not fences
Referring to the history of Tyrol, the southern region of which was annexed by Italy in 1918, Leitl said: “One hundred years ago Tyrol was torn apart and for 100 years we suffered for it. Two decades ago Europe brought us together again. Today there is the European region of Tyrol. I am proud of it. If you say Europe is a model of peace, then Tyrol is the best example of this.”
“Border security belongs in the Mediterranean rather than fences across Europe, where we are throwing all the advantages of free movement overboard just because we are not capable of coming up with a long-term strategy.”
He added that Austria should focus on integrating migrants into the economy, as it cannot expect to sustain the current influx of workers, particularly in the health and social care sector, from countries like Slovakia or Hungary as these regions improve economically in the coming years.
“Therefore we must prepare ourselves today. We will be grateful one day to the refugees, if we not only receive and accommodate them but also train them and involve and familiarise them with our values system,” he said.
“With every risk – which we have at this time – there is also an opportunity. Politics must define how it deals with borders and the economy must define how it deals with integration.”
Up to 30 percent drop in tourism
His comments come amid concerns that controls at Austria's borders will lead to a “major setback” for tourism in the region.
According to the WKÖ head of tourism Petra Nocker-Schwarzenbacker, Tyrolean ski areas have seen a 10 percent to 30 percent fall in the number of guests during the current winter season.
She pointed to an unexpected 'standstill' during this year's Fasching carnival week, adding: “As well as weather and snow conditions, border controls are now an additional factor.”
This week economic and political stakeholders in the region are meeting to discuss how to manage the border to prevent further economic damage to the region as a result of the controls, which one member of the East Tyrol Tourist Board, Franz Theurl, described as a “major blow”.
The meeting will include discussions about a special bike path for day trippers from Italy, who make up a third of summer visitors in East Tyrol and bring significant amounts of money to the town of Lienz.
Although Theurl hopes that the state of emergency will only last a year, tourism researcher Peter Zellmann warns that small and medium businesses in the region are underestimating the seriousness or potential duration of the situation. “Just going back to business as usual is not a solution,” he said.