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ECONOMY

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

Austria’s lucrative winter season has already been hit by pandemic restrictions for the past two years. But this year there is also record inflation, staff shortages and an energy crisis to deal with.

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria's winter season
What will happen to Austria's winter season this year? The Local took a closer look at the crises facing the industry. (Photo by Flo Maderebner / Pexels)

The winter season in Austria is a big driver of the country’s economy and has been hit hard by Covid-19 restrictions for the past two winters.

But this year the industry faces an even bigger crisis – a combination of rising inflation, concerns over energy supplies, staff shortages and the pandemic (because it’s not over yet).

We took a closer look to find out how these issues could impact the industry and what we could expect from this year’s winter season in Austria.

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Inflation

Winter sports is a big guzzler of energy to operate ski lifts, apres ski venues and snow making machines. 

This means the industry is in a vulnerable position as energy prices rise, with some resort operators already confirming they will have to pass on some costs to customers.

Johann Roth, Managing Director at Präbichl in Styria, said that energy costs at the resort have tripled and admitted he is concerned about the coming winter season.

Roth told the Kronen Zeitung: “Of course we will have to increase the ticket prices, and to an extent that has never been seen in recent years.”

READ MORE: Cost of living: Why are restaurants getting more expensive in Austria?

At Planai ski resort in Schladming, Styria, Director Georg Bliem said they aim to keep the day ticket price under €70, but has also set up an energy task force to find cost-saving measures for this year. 

Suggestions for Planai include narrower slopes, reduced snowmaking capabilities, shorter cable car operating times and even a delayed start to the season.

Electricity costs at Planaibahn (the resort’s ski lift and gondola operator) were already at €3 million before the current energy crisis, according to the Kronen Zeitung.

Then there are hospitality businesses and hotels at ski resorts that are also being hit by rising costs.

As a result, the Kurier reports that room prices in overnight accommodation could increase by a further 15 percent in winter, and many people will no longer be able to afford skiing holidays.

Heating may be an issue in winter as the energy crisis looms (Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash)

Energy

Rising prices are just one element of the energy crisis as there are fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming winter season – mostly due to the war in Ukraine.

In March, Austria activated the early warning system – which is the first level of a three-step emergency plan – for the country’s gas supply. If it reaches step three (emergency level), energy control measures will be put in place across the country.

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How this would impact ski resorts is unknown, but at the emergency level, households, essential industries and infrastructure would be prioritised for energy.

So far, there is no indication that step two (alert level) will be activated and the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory recently confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity was 60 percent full

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve.

However, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler already appealed to businesses and households in July to start saving energy where possible.

Staff shortages

Ever since Austria (and Europe) started opening up after Covid-19 lockdowns, the hospitality and tourism industries have been struggling to find staff.

In fact, shortly before the start of the summer season in Austria, there were 30,000 open job vacancies in the tourism sector. And the Wiener Zeitung recently reported on how restaurants in Vienna are struggling to keep up with customer demand due to staff shortages. 

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The issue is even being discussed in parliament and it has already been made easier for seasonal workers in Austria to access residency through changes to the Red-White-Red card. 

Now, there are expectations of similar staff shortages for the winter season, which could cause further stress for ski resort operators.

Covid-19

Back in July, it was reported that the federal government was working on a Covid-19 contingency plan to get the country through another autumn and winter.

It envisages four scenarios – numbered from the best to the worst case. In the best case scenario, Austrians can live free of any pandemic rules. In the second best scenario, the situation will remain as it is (find out more about Austria’s latest Covid-19 rules here).

In scenario three, if new variants lead to more severe illness, the mask requirement will be expanded and more testing will be carried out.

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There could even be night-time curfews, entry tests and restrictions on private meetings. In addition, major events could be stopped from taking place and nightclubs closed.

Scenario four, the worst case scenario, would mean vaccination no longer offered protection and hospitals became overwhelmed, leading to severe restrictions on people’s social lives.

From what we’ve seen over the past two winters, scenarios three and four would likely impact winter sports operations. But to what degree would depend on the severity of the situation.

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ENERGY

UPDATED: Will Austria have enough gas for this winter?

Austria's gas storage tanks are filling up as gas consumption remains low. Here's what it means for the coming winter season.

UPDATED: Will Austria have enough gas for this winter?

On Tuesday, Austria’s Climate Ministry confirmed the country’s gas storage tanks are now 80 percent full. 

The milestone was reached one month ahead of schedule and the amount is equivalent to the country’s average gas usage during a winter season.

Austria reached the target amount after more Russian gas flowed into the country than is currently being consumed, which means the storage levels will continue to increase.

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In a statement, Chancellor Karl Nehammer said: “We pulled out all the stops to fill our large storage facilities and create this security of supply. 

“Today, we can say we are well prepared. Our storage facilities are 80 percent full and continue to fill up.”

Nehammer also confirmed that Austria’s dependence on Russian gas has been reduced from 80 percent to 50 percent, reports the Kronen Zeitung.

But despite the good news, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens) said the situation “remains tense”, adding that Russia is not a “reliable counterpart”.

Earlier this year, the Austrian Federal Government set the 80 percent target to ensure the gas supply for the winter months amid fears the gas supply could be disrupted.

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Even the storage facility at Haidach (the Salzburg-Upper Austrian site that borders Bavaria in Germany) is filling up after RAG, the largest gas storage operator and energy storage company in Austria, overtook management in August. Previously, Haidach was managed by Russia’s Gazprom unit and the facility had not been refilled since last winter.

This is good news for Austria as Tyrol and Vorarlberg’s gas supply comes from Bavaria, reports Der Standard.

How much gas can Austria store?

Austria can store 90 terrawatt hours (TWh) of gas when the storage tanks are full.

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However, only around half of the gas stored in Austria is for domestic consumption because gas for Slovenia and Germany is stored in Austria. 

According to ORF, Austria recorded 77 TWh of gas in storage on October 2nd. Last winter, Austria’s gas consumption from October 2021 to March 2022 was around 65 TWh.

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