We spent a fortnight in Austria in late July and early August 2015, dividing our stay between the predominantly rural Filzmoos and the more urban Zell am See, both located in the state of Salzburg. They were very different.
In Filzmoos tourism was low key and visitors were almost exclusively European. Only on our excursion to Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut did we encounter coach loads of Chinese and Japanese tourists and their penchant for exhaustive photography.
In Zell am See tourism was intensive, the small town (standing population 10,000) boasting many hotels and a constant influx of day trippers arriving by road and rail. Road access to the town was regularly gridlocked, for Zell is one of the top ten summer destinations in Austria.
There was a particularly heavy concentration of visitors from the Arabian Gulf with many staying at the most expensive hotels, notably the iconic Grand Hotel.
The history of Arab tourism in Zell am See
A variety of online sources provide snippets that can be combined into a narrative that may or may not be reliable.
In 2003 or thereabouts Austria began to promote itself vigorously as a tourist destination in the Middle East.
Some say the campaign advertised Zell am See as a Koranic vision of paradise – a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains – using the slogan ‘Paradise as the Koran intended’.
Others mention visits by members of the Kuwaiti royal family, plus the attractions of a relatively cool summer temperature compared with the 50 degree heat of the Gulf.
By summer 2006 Arabs accounted for 80,000 overnight stays, some 10% of the total.
Two years later it was reported that at least one third of Austria’s annual intake of 76,000 Arab tourists were visiting Zell am See and that they constituted up to 15% of summer guests. Most visitors were from the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Zell am See’s own regional marketing was reportedly cancelled in 2012 because it had become a little too successful. But Arab tourism shows no signs of slowing, indeed rather the reverse.
From May to October 2013 Arab visitors accounted for 275,000 overnight stays in the Zell am See-Kaprun area (25% of the total). In August 2013 alone they comprised 36% of visitors, even though Ramadan that year was not over until 7 August.
Other sources suggest that around 70,000 Arabs now visit Zell am See itself each summer. Their average daily spend is £195, approximately double that of other tourists.
But, while the local economy must have benefitted from Arab largesse, not all local citizens have welcomed these developments.
As early as 2009 a magazine polled local people and found that 80% wanted to stop the promotion of the area in Arabic countries. Many hoteliers and restaurateurs had made adjustments to cater for their Arabic visitors, and clearly welcomed their increased profits, but some were also worried about the impact on their other guests.
Then in April 2014 the regional authorities produced a guide called ‘Where Cultures Meet’ in collaboration with the tourist office, the police and Austria’s Arabic Chamber of Trade.
Arabs were advised that:
- Their children should wear car seatbelts
- They should avoid littering and separate their waste for recycling
- Prices are fixed and haggling is frowned upon
- They should not smoke outside the designated areas
- They should not use their own cooking appliances in hotel rooms or eat meals on the floor
On the vexed question of women’s dress, the guide compromised rather clumsily:
‘Austrian women are free to choose their own dress style, and this is visible in their choice of colourful, modern clothes. Here the colour black symbolises mourning and is only rarely worn in everyday life. In our culture, we are accustomed to looking into the smiling face of the person opposite us in order to gain a first impression and build mutual trust. It would be a great pleasure for us if you could join us in celebrating the uniquely joyful Austrian mentality and show your colourful scarves and dress and, in this way, show us your smile.’
There was controversy, with some local businesses describing the publication as ‘tourism apartheid’.
However, the Town’s Mayor defended it strongly:
‘When you have a situation where visitors from a particular country or region are over present, then it can be a problem.
Austrians have the same problem in Lignano. [Italy]
Here the Arabs have the problem that their strong presence in the region is very clearly visible because of the burka.
That causes irritation among locals and among visitors from other countries.
The guests [who] are coming from other countries carry away with them a different image of our region.’
There was a backlash however. An English class in a local school conducted a survey of Arab guests because ‘the pupils were enclosed in a wall of prejudice….’
By June 2014 it was reported that the guide had been withdrawn as, according to a tourism marketing director:
‘…unfortunately, certain passages led to misunderstandings. We will revise the brochure with input from guests and locals.’
I could not trace an updated version.
This summer fresh stories were circulating of poor behaviour by Arab tourists visiting Europe.
An opinion piece in one Saudi paper reports:
‘…a surge of news on Arab social media websites on how Austrians are fed up with the “transgressions” of Arab tourists in Austria…
…a video has surfaced featuring Arab tourists and interviews with Austrians who do not seem pleased with their Arab visitors.’
Another report from the Gulf cites a case in which:
‘The security authorities in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are looking for the Kuwaiti tourist for spoiling the country’s reputation in Switzerland by stealing a goose from a pond, slaughtering and cooking it and posting a related clip on the social media.’
Both pieces also allege that, following complaints by residents, the Salzburg regional parliament had petitioned the Austrian Federal Parliament to curb the number of visas granted to Saudi and Kuwaiti tourists.
The infringements cited included animal cruelty and littering.
The Austrian Embassy in Kuwait said it had not been notified of any intention to act on the petition.
The opinion piece says the reaction in Saudi Arabia has been mixed, some deploring the reputational damage inflicted on them by their countrymen, others calling for a boycott of Austria in response to the negative attitudes displayed by some of its residents. The author implies that there is wrong on both sides.
A third Gulf source places the Arab in a long line of negative tourist caricatures, previous targets including Americans, the Japanese, the British and the Germans.
The UK experience
London is extremely ethnically diverse and Londoners like ourselves typically value and enjoy their highly multicultural environment.
In some London boroughs over one third of residents speak a first language other than English. In Tower Hamlets, 18% are Bengali speakers, in Ealing 6.3% speak Polish, in Enfield 6.2% speak Turkish and in Westminster 5.7% speak Arabic. More than 100 languages are spoken in all but three London boroughs.
That said, while all forms of female Muslim headdress are seen on our streets, the niqab – where only the eyes are visible – has always been comparatively rare. It still has curiosity value and may be viewed with suspicion.
This wearer says there are no available statistics but estimates that only 0.001% of Muslim women in the UK adopt the niqab. If we apply that percentage to these figures, then there are fewer than 1,000 wearers resident in England and Wales. They will be concentrated predominantly in London and a few other large cities.
There is ample evidence that those who do adopt the niqab can encounter severe prejudice on British streets, but a September 2013 poll suggested that more rational attitudes vary considerably by demographic.
Overall 61% supported a ‘blanket burka ban’:
- 62% of males and 59% of females agreed (though men were much more inclined to agree strongly)
- Only 46% of 18-39 year-olds agreed, compared with 69% of those aged over 40. For 18-4 year-olds the percentage was only 35%, but for those over 60 it was 76%
- Those in lower socio-economic groups (C2DE) were significantly more likely to agree (65%) than those in higher (ABC1) groups (57%)
- In Scotland only 48% agreed, followed by 54% in London, but 62% agreed elsewhere in the south as did 63% in the north and 66% in the midlands and Wales.
These findings are unlikely to have changed significantly in the last two years.
Our experience in Zell am See
We booked our holiday at short notice so were not aware that Zell am See is a magnet for Arab tourists. Moreover, as noted above, we transferred from the semi-rural and almost mono-cultural setting of Filzmoos, so the contrast was particularly striking.
On arrival we were immediately struck by the ubiquity of Arab visitors. There was a preponderance of large black Mercedes and BMW saloons, especially in the vicinity of the poshest hotels. Taxis were constantly disgorging and refilling themselves outside these and other venues.
We encountered many large family groups walking by the lake or shopping in the town. Arab visitors seemed particularly attracted to the lakeside at twilight and were most often concentrated near the children’s playground. None were present in the neighbouring lido, though I understand that it is perfectly feasible to swim in a niqab.
A variety of female dress was apparent, but it seemed that approximately half of the women were ‘niqabis’. I had never before experienced such a concentration on European soil.
A handful of wearers used our hotel restaurant, but we encountered none elsewhere in the hotel, suggesting that they were not resident. Some other hotels appeared to have a predominantly Saudi and Emirati clientele, most of their female guests sporting a niqab.
Relatively few wearers made it to the top of the Schmittenhohe (Zell am See’s local mountain) and, of those, most seemed to stay close to the cable car station.
Niqabs were somewhat in evidence on our excursion to Krimml Waterfalls (though the numbers declined as the path ascended) but there were none at all when we visited Berchtesgaden in nearby Bavaria.
Before I wrote this I didn’t begin to understand why women would wear the niqab.
After researching the reasons given by religious authorities and the women themselves I am not much more enlightened, but then reason and religion are often uneasy bedfellows.
Initially I found the high incidence of niqabs in Zell am See bemusing and incongruous. They seemed rather out of place in a small Austrian town and faintly surreal when encountered on an alpine summit.
When I experienced them en masse it felt somewhat intimidating and uncomfortable. I was ill at ease – but I was also uneasy about feeling uneasy. People can wear what they like can’t they? And, anyway, it’s a peripheral issue that I should have been able to keep in perspective.
I strove to accept these women as individuals in their own right, rather than treating them as an amorphous mass of blackness.
At first there was no difference. I found myself looking right through them, as if they were ciphers that had no meaning. Then I tried engaging with the wearer’s eyes, since that was their only visible distinguishing feature.
Some looked away immediately, no doubt finding my inquisitiveness unwelcome, over-familiar, possibly even confrontational. But others coolly returned my scrutiny and one or two were already staring at me rather brazenly (I suppose redheads are equally peculiar to the Arab eye).
It helped a little to differentiate in this way, to stimulate a basic human reaction, but it raised more questions than answers. I wondered how different the interaction would be if I was female – about how these women engaged with the gaze of their more liberated western sisters.
I was particularly confused by the copious amounts of kohl on some of the eyes I scrutinised. A predilection for make-up seems entirely at odds with the broader intention, indeed subtly subversive.
These women must be plugging into a centuries-old meme that has currency in their own communities as well as the West: the one in which the woman is hidden but speaks volumes with her eyes.
Perhaps dark sunglasses should be part of the ensemble, though it is frankly impossible to carry off a niqab with glasses of any kind. Some refinement is required for bespectacled women, who are no doubt plagued by condensation.
I came across one article that conveyed the Arab perspective on female dress in Zell am See, albeit in the typical manner:
‘”My wife decided that she was going to remove her face cover since she felt everyone was staring at her. But now she says that she feels naked like this.”
…She remains close behind him and whispers constantly in his ear, but he is the one who does the talking. “It is for us the complete opposite world. Here people stare at all of the women wearing a niqab. In our country we would look strangely upon women like yours.”
When the Austrian Parliament rejected a bill banning the burqa in 2014, Zell am See received a special mention during the debate:
‘Maria Fekter of the Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) opposed a ban on the basis that the few women who wore the veil were mostly wealthy foreigners at the Zell am See tourist resort whose presence brought economic benefit to that region.’
While some locals might prefer the niqab to disappear from their streets, they would be guilty of looking a gift horse in the mouth. To put it crudely, the additional euros spent by Arabs far exceed those lost as a consequence of some other tourists choosing to stay elsewhere.
From a more principled perspective it is dangerous and wrong to pander to prejudice. Those like me who have issues with the niqab should arguably get over them.
For now, Zell am See appears increasingly welcoming to its Arab visitors, providing halal food and Arabic menus. But, then again, the planned casino at the Grand Hotel might be interpreted as a subtle method of attracting a different brand of wealthy visitor – one whose faith permits them to gamble.
Set against a backdrop of mass migration and Islamophobia, the cultural collision in Zell am See will surely play out for several years to come.