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Reader question: Is travelling to Austria this winter worth it?

High inflation, energy crisis, a possible new Covid wave - these factors are a concern for people living in Austria right now. So, is your winter trip still worth it?

Reader question: Is travelling to Austria this winter worth it?
(Photo by Daniel Frank on Unsplash)

After years of restrictions, including closures and strict travel rules, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2022/23 winter season seems to be closer to what people were used to before 2020.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine, contributing to rising inflation in the eurozone and an energy crisis, plus the fact that new cases of Covid-19 continue rising, have put a big question mark over the Austrian winter season.

Despite all that is happening, is it still worth travelling to Austria this winter? Will people be able to afford their expenses in the country? Will there be heating for everyone?

The inflation and energy crisis in Austria

Heating and electricity prices are going up in Austria, but the federal and state governments have looked for ways to either contain the increases or cushion their effects.

In June, a €6 billion package to fight the rising cost of living impact on residents was announced, as The Local reported. It involved increasing family allowances, cutting taxes and one-off welfare payouts, including the €500 Klimabonus that (almost) every single person living in the Alpine country was entitled to.

It helped ease the effects of inflation, but it did not halt the resign prices. In October, Austria announced that inflation hit a 70-year high at 10.5 percent. Again, household energy was the main price driver, followed by fuel costs for transport and food (groceries and restaurants).

Additionally, restaurant and hotel prices have increased by 10.5 percent in the past year.

READ ALSO: How could Austria’s new electricity price brake benefit you?

As prices are not expected to come down substantially anytime soon, you should prepare for a more expensive winter vacation, especially if you are skiing, as ski resort prices and ski passes are already costing up to 20 percent more than last year.

However, the rising prices do not mean Austria has a high risk regarding its supply, as The Local reported. The alpine country is well equipped for electricity supply – with most of its power coming from hydroelectric or wind power farms.

READ MORE: Reader question: What are the chances of blackouts in Austria this winter?

In total, around 80 percent of Austria’s electricity comes from renewables and the country has a high percentage of “security supply”.

Austria was also one of the first countries to institute an electricity price brake, partially subsidising energy bills even for those with only a second-home in the country.

What about heating?

Heating is seen as a more delicate situation. The war in Ukraine and Europe’s dependence on Russian gas have made many people in the continent, including Austria, concerned about the supply of energy, especially in the coming winter.

Since deciding to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, the country has looked for other partners and other storage possibilities. In early October, the Climate Ministry confirmed that storage tanks were 80 percent full, reaching its winter target ahead of schedule.

“Today, we can say we are well prepared. Our storage facilities are 80 percent full and continue to fill up.”, said Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) at the time.

According to the federal government, there are no restrictions on residential heating and no plans to impose an upper limit on how much you can heat your home this winter.

READ ALSO: ‘Mission 11’: Austrian government reveals tips on how to save energy and fuel

However, the Climate Ministry did launch a voluntary campaign for energy savings, which included the recommendation that people reduce the heating temperature by two degrees Celsius over winter.

Federal and municipal buildings and state companies have also announced their own measures. For example, in Vienna, public indoor pools will only be heated up to 27C while public transport’s temperatures would be reduced by two degrees.

Private companies are also free to take their own energy-saving measures. So, if you plan on using the SPA facilities in your hotel, you could ask if they are taking any such actions.

Most Christmas lights will be up – though for a shorter period each day (Photo by Anton on Unsplash)

Some ski business operators have already mentioned solutions, including switching off seat heating in lifts, using less lighting at stations and even stopping (or operating less) night skiing.

The speed of cable cars could be reduced from midday to the afternoon, and operators plan to use snow-making machines more efficiently.

READ ALSO: What to expect from the ski season in Austria this winter

What about Christmas markets?

Austria is famous for its beautiful Christmas markets, with the lights and decorations a highlight.

Each city will impose its energy measures, mainly consisting of two things: lights will be on for shorter times during the night, and there will be a reduction (or cut) in electric heaters outdoors.

In Vienna, the Christmas lights are already set up even in the first district shopping streets. However, they will be turned off at 10 pm (instead of midnight) to save energy. Additionally, almost all the lights are now energy-saving LED, as the city has been for ten years converting the decoration, according to the country’s trade association WKO, which negotiates the decoration with the city.

READ ALSO: Nine festive foods and drinks that no Austrian Christmas is complete without

Also, there will be fewer Christmas illuminations in other parts of the city, including the Ringstrasse, the famous boulevard that encircles the centre of the Austrian capital.

And the lights at the Christmas market in the square in front of the city hall would only be switched on at night and not at dusk, as in previous years, according to city spokeswoman Roberta Kraft.

In conclusion…

Things will definitely be more expensive – so you’ll have to factor that in – but nobody will be cold at home or in hotels and restaurants. There is also (thankfully) no talk of potentials blackouts or prolonged power shortages.

Christmas is also not being cancelled. Even if some places have fewer lights, those will shine bright (for a shorter period) in the most traditional areas of towns.

Regarding the pandemic, Vienna has an FFP2 mask mandate in public transport, but the federal government said it sees no reason to impose further measures or restrictions any time soon. There is also no expectation of any travel restrictions coming into place. But, of course, this all depends on if there are any major unexpected events or new, dangerous, Covid-19 variants being discovered. Let’s hope for the best, though. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

‘Double processing time’: Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Germany, Austria and another of other countries in Europe's Schengen area admit they fear delays and insufficient time to test the process ahead of new, more rigorous EU border checks that will be introduced next year, a new document reveals.

'Double processing time': Austria and Germany fear non-EU travellers face border delays

Schengen countries are tightening up security at the external borders with the introduction of a new digital system (EES) to record the entry and exit of non-EU citizens in May 2023.

The EES will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. It will register the person’s name, type of the travel document, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) and the date and place of entry and exit. The data will be kept in a centralised database on a rolling three-year basis that is re-set at each entry. 

What the EES is intended to do is increase border security, including the enforcement of the 90-day short-stay limit for tourists and visitors. EU citizens and third-country nationals who reside in a country of the Schengen area will not be subject to such checks.

READ ALSO: Foreigners living in EU not covered by new EES border checks

But given its scale, the entry into operation of the system has been raising concerns on many fronts, including the readiness of the physical and digital infrastructure, and the time required for border checks, which could subsequently cause massive queues at borders.

A document on the state of preparations was distributed last week by the secretariat of the EU Council (the EU institution representing member states) and published by Statewatch, a non-profit organisation that monitors civil liberties.

The paper contains the responses from 21 member states to a questionnaire about potential impacts on passenger flows, the infrastructure put in place and the possibility of a gradual introduction of the new system over a number of months.

This is what certain the countries have responded. Responses from Denmark, Spain and Sweden do not appear in the report but the answers from other countries will be relevant for readers in those countries.

READ ALSO: What the EU’s new EES border check system means for travel

‘Double processing time’

Austria and Germany are the most vocal in warning that passport processing times will increase when the EES will become operational.

“The additional tasks resulting from the EES regulation will lead to a sharp increase in process times”, which are expected to “double compared to the current situation,” Austrian authorities say. “This will also affect the waiting times at border crossing points (in Austria, the six international airports),” the document continues.

“Furthermore, border control will become more complicated since in addition to the distinction between visa-exempt and visa-required persons, we will also have to differentiate between EES-required and EES-exempt TCN [third country nationals], as well as between registered and unregistered TCN in EES,” Austrian officials note.

Based on an analysis of passenger traffic carried out with the aviation industry, German authorities estimate that checking times will “increase significantly”.

France expects to be ready for the introduction of the EES “in terms of passenger routes, training and national systems,” but admits that “fluidity remains a concern” and “discussions are continuing… to make progress on this point”.

Italy is also “adapting the border operational processes… in order to contain the increased process time and ensure both safety and security”.

“Despite many arguments for the introduction of automated border control systems based on the need for efficiency, the document makes clear that the EES will substantially increase border crossing times,” Statewatch argues.

‘Stable service unlikely by May 2023’

The border infrastructure is also being adapted for collecting and recording the data, with several countries planning for automated checks. So what will change in practice?

Austria intends to install self-service kiosks at the airports of Vienna and Salzburg “in the course of 2023”. Later these will be linked to existing e-gates enabling a “fully automated border crossing”. Austrian authorities also explain that airport operators are seeking to provide more space for kiosks and queues, but works will not be completed before the system is operational.

Germany also plans to install self-service kiosks at the airports to “pre-capture” biometric data before border checks. But given the little time for testing the full process, German authorities say “a stable working EES system seems to be unlikely in May 2023.”

France will set up self-service kiosks in airports, where third-country nationals can pre-register their biometric data and personal information before being directed to the booth for verification with the border guard. The same approach will be adopted for visitors arriving by bus, while tablet devices such as iPads will be used for the registration of car passengers at land and sea borders.

Italy is increasing the “equipment of automated gates in all the main  airport” and plans to install, at least in the first EES phase, about 600 self-service kiosks at the airports of Rome Fiumicino, Milan Malpensa, Venice and in those with “significant volumes of extra-Schengen traffic,” such as Bergamo, Naples, Bologna and Turin.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member but is part of the Schengen area, is also installing self-service kiosks to facilitate the collection of data. Norway, instead, will have “automated camera solutions operated by the border guards”, but will consider self-service options only after the EES is in operation.

Gradual introduction?

One of the possibilities still in consideration is the gradual introduction of the new system. The European Commission has proposed a ‘progressive approach’ that would allow the creation of “incomplete” passenger files for 9 months following the EES entry into operation, and continuing passport stamping for 3 months.

According to the responses, Italy is the only country favourable to this option. For Austria and France this “could result in more confusion for border guards and travellers”. French officials also argue that a lack of biometric data will “present a risk for the security of the Schengen area”.

France suggested to mitigate with “flexibility” the EES impacts in the first months of its entry into service. In particular, France calls for the possibility to not create EES files for third-country nationals who entered the Schengen area before the system becomes operational, leaving this task to when they return later.

This would “significantly ease the pressure” on border guards “during the first three months after entry into service,” French authorities said.

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