Vienna’s Spanish Riding School and its coffee house culture have already been recognised as part of Austria’s cultural heritage. A decision on whether the fiaker will be added to the list is expected next year.
Fiaker spokeswoman Martina Michelfeit-Stockinger told the Kurier newspaper that applying for the UNESCO status was “a cry for help” as fiaker drivers have been battling new laws and regulations and attempts by animal rights activists to shut them down.
The fiaker drivers and their horses have been a part of Vienna's cityscape since 1693, but Michelfeit-Stockinger says that they risk losing their livelihood unless they are protected.
Fiaker drivers are also struggling to find parking spaces in the city centre. From January 9th, 24 allocated spaces will be removed as the Stephansplatz is being renovated. Once the cathedral square has been renovated only 12 spaces will remain in what is the most central, and therefore most profitable location for fiaker drivers – whose trade depends on tourists. Michelfeit-Stockinger believes that this is proof that local politicians are keen to get rid of the fiaker.
The horses’ hooves and the carriage wheels are responsible for around €700,000 worth of road damage in the historic city centre every year – which has to covered by the 1st district. However, it can only afford to invest around €300,000 each year, to repair the most serious damage.
Local MP Markus Figl (ÖVP) suggested reducing the amount of fiaker parking spaces in the 1st district as a way of creating more space for the growing number of pedestrians. Foot traffic in the city centre has doubled in the past ten years. There will be additional parking spaces for fiaker on the Burgring, but Michelfeit-Stockinger says this is not ideal as the horses will have to cross two tram tracks, which could be dangerous.
Indra Kley, head of the Austrian branch of the VIER PFOTEN animal protection group says the application for cultural heritage status is a misuse of UNESCO. “Culture must not exploit animals. The fiaker industry is trying, in a very transparent way, to circumvent existing problems. Not every tradition is good – and that's why they are constantly changing.
In the 21st century we are proud to have animal rights written into the Austrian constitution… What we should be asking is, not who is protecting this tradition, but who is protecting the horses?”