Which Ischgl will emerge post-sabbatical?

Denied its overseas revenue stream, the après ski powerhouse of Ischgl in the Austrian Paznaun took the 2020/21 off, closed for the season whilst other Tirolean resorts looked after the locals. Its last ski operations saw the much-publicised Covid wave take over the resort and take flight across Europe. And now, après ski is conspicuously absent on the resort website. So, what type of Ischgl will emerge when it reopens?

Finger pointing amongst politicians and governments has been a futile and increasingly tiring popularity contest over the last 12 months. Clusters, variants and quarantine breaches have all been used to shift blame and deflect criticism. Ischgl though (rightly or wrongly depending on public enquiry outcomes) is still demonised as the resort of excess which helped fuel the pandemic in Europe. It is hard to judge the direction of the resort as it has been shuttered for the last winter, cynics would say to avoid the flack, others would see a mega resort with huge overheads, cut off from its vast international revenue stream, taking a sound business decision. But in winter 2021/22 what Ischgl are we likely to see?

The heavyweight champion of après ski

Popularly known as the Ibiza or the Alps, Ischgl has for decades hosted the greatest après ski party, week-in, week-out, anywhere in the world. There are pretenders to the crown, but nothing could match the après ski of Ischgl between mid-afternoon and dawn, from December to early May. The volume and intensity of the après ski party across the resort was simply unique. An entire regional economy has been developed around thousands of skiers who kick off their skis in the afternoon and go nuts to europop remixes, till late. Prosperity has followed and Ischgl has reinvested funds in developing one of the truly great, global ski areas. Make no mistake, behind the party hype of Ischgl lies one truly phenomenal ski area. The brand Ischgl is amongst the most-recognised globally, this despite the lack of a Kitzbühel Hahnenkamm race beamed around the world, or a history of alpinism that makes Chamonix so revered. Instead, a sensational ski area hosted the biggest après party in the world over the years and invited big name musicians to play to the thousands in season opening & closing concerts. The brand grew and grew and then came covid and an outbreak that was traced back to the après ski bars of the resort. When Ischgl re-opens, the world will have changed.

What happened to ‘Relax if you can’?

The conditions for virus transmission could find few more optimised environments than shoulder-to-shoulder beer halls, in the midst of winter, with doors closed to contain noise and retain heat. After such a long period of social distancing, will people be ready to share such close proximity, in such compromised air? After all, a trip to the mountains is about rejuvenation, vistas and exercise in the pristine alpine air. Can business as usual return once it is technically permitted to do so?

It is integral to the brand’s DNA to reach further and go harder – ‘Relax if you can’ was the mantra.  The Ischgl ski area has expanded, the lift system is constantly modernised, the hotels continue to head upmarket, and the concert headliners get ever more stellar. It is hard to imagine that Ischgl knows how to take a backward step, its vision has always been to offer the most intense and memorable visitor experience possible. The economic model has been so successful that the resort essentially closes in summer, such are the winter revenues. The lift system cannot be matched in terms of modernity, comfort and efficiency and the resort hotels are going further upmarket, offering niche accommodation to those looking for the ultimate comforts. So maybe the resort continues on its path once the pandemic is behind us?

But there is a growing sense of change afoot. ‘Relax if you can’ no longer seems to be part of the Ischgl brand. The resort website which once touted the pulsating après ski now barely mentions it, gone is the ‘Nightlife & Après Ski’ website menu and there is scant mention of the subject anywhere on the site. This editorial change of direction has occurred during the pandemic. The new wellness centre being developed on the western flank of the village might point to a diversification that began before the virus arrived, however. It could have been a balancing act, a tentative repositioning to attract those who want to end their day floating in thermal waters as well as those looking to get their ski boots on tables. Construction started in 2019 and the EUR 60m development includes a conference and event hall - the value of the investment points to the strategic importance of this diversification. 

Rebranding is one thing but rewiring the economics of the valley to fundamentally change the visitor offer would be a monumental transition. The ski area is as good as any in the Alps and people have flocked to the slopes and poured money into the lift company coffers. This has allowed the continual upgrade of the area and the facilities to what it is today. But a huge part of the economy was driven by après ski, it was king of the hill for this form of entertainment and sucked in big partying, big spending revellers to the resort each and every winter. Ischgl without its crown? it seems unimaginable but there are definite signs that Ischgl might be abdicating its throne.

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