Village faces ruin in wake of tragedy

Skiing disaster: the horrific tunnel fire threatens the future of Kaprun and all Austria's mountain industries
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The Independent Online

Regional tourism authorities in Austria called off their pre-season advertising campaigns last week out of respect for the 155 people who perished in the country's worst disaster.

Regional tourism authorities in Austria called off their pre-season advertising campaigns last week out of respect for the 155 people who perished in the country's worst disaster.

In the village of Kaprun, gateway to the magnificent Kitzsteinhorn mountain, the ski lifts will remain idle for at least another week.

The ski-train tunnel which was the scene of the horrific inferno in which the victims perished will probably stay closed for ever.

But long before the villagers have buried their dead - attaching names to the ashes could take a month - business will have to resume. Skiers will be shown another way up the Kitzsteinhorn, restaurants and bars in the valley will fill with the boisterous sound of aprÿs-ski merriment. What else can Kaprun do?

The snow industry is the monoculture of the Alps. Almost every one of Kaprun's 3,000 inhabitants lives off tourism. Thanks to the glacier 6,000ft above their roofs, skiers provide the locals' bread and butter all year round. No one lives in an ordinary house; the sons and daughters of goatherds inhabit chalets of a dozen rooms or more, constantly tending to the needs of their paying guests. At peak season, when the village is swamped with 6,000 visitors, there is not a room to spare.

The peak season was due to begin on 30 November, when the grand new alpine centre near the terminus of the funicular was to open. The building is covered in soot, the carriages of the two "Alpine métro" trains are a heap of molten aluminium. "We must consider whether we should continue to rely on the métro, or create a new route," said Norbert Karslböck, Kaprun's mayor.

The problem is that even if the operating company fitted new safety measures, visitors are unlikely ever to want to pass through a tunnel where so many choked and burned to death. The prospect of such a journey might even deter many who otherwise would not object to a spell in the now infamous resort. Building new gondola lifts may be the only solution, but it will not save the current season. Kaprun is facing ruin.

Also badly affected are resorts that operated a similar funicular system. Until last weekend, they were reputed to be the safest means of transport in the world. Last week the Austrian government suspended five of them, and now questions are being asked about the country's safety standards generally.

Funicular trains are an efficient way of carrying large numbers of skiers towards the slopes at high speed. If they remain grounded, the customers will get fed up with the queues for the slower alternatives and take their business elsewhere.

Austrian officials are therefore understandably eager to allay fears and talk up the merits of one of their country's biggest industries. "We can only point out that this was a unique event, that we have no idea what caused it," declared the deputy governor of Salzburg province, Wolfgang Eisl. "Everyone knows that holidays in Austria are among the safest in the world."

The Swiss and the Germans beg to disagree. A rival funicular railway system in Switzerland's Saas Fee, for instance, is fitted with surveillance cameras and emergency exits mid-tunnel. Kaprun's tunnel did not even have emergency lights. Germany's Zugspitze railway, where an accident occurred earlier this year, boasts fire shelters at regular intervals. Nothing of the kind had been built in Kaprun. Austria has been producing many negative headlines of late. On Kaprun's now unreachable glacier, 12 apprentice ski instructors were swept to their deaths by an avalanche earlier this year. In February last year, 38 people died in a series of avalanches at the resort of Galtür. That season's run of accidents - it had been an exceptionally ill-fated winter throughout the Alps - was bad for business.

"Last year's ski industry was depressed compared with the previous year," says Liz Russell, of the Ski Club of Great Britain.

There were other factors at play, notably tourism's famous Millennium flop. So far travel agencies say that they have not been hit by cancellations. But it is early days: the avalanche season has not yet begun. Any more bad news, and the ski industry might start facing collapse.