Could one Austrian village have infected much of Europe?
‘If people died because profit was put before wellbeing then that has to be called into question’
The Austrian village of Ischgl has many apres-ski bars. “They are a bit like discos for teenagers, but full of men in their 50s.” Photograph: AFP via Getty Images
In the first week of March, Charlie Jackson had an argument with his wife. The 53-year-old recruitment agent from Pangbourne in Berkshire, southeast England, was due to catch a flight to Innsbruck in Austria for a three-day “boys’ holiday” skiing in the Tirolean Alps.
Jackson’s wife, Carol, felt Ischgl, the resort booked by the group, was a bit too close to the parts of northern Italy that had recently been shut down to contain the spread of a mystery flu-like illness. But Jackson threw caution to the wind: he had already spent more than £1,000 (€1,100) on the trip.
Ischgl, one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe, is what Jackson calls “a boyish kind of place”. He and his friends had been visiting the town in the Paznaun valley, Austria, for the past nine years. The snow is reliably powdery from November to May. The compact nature of the place means you don’t need a car to get around. The facilities are well-run: Ischgl has 45 state-of-the-art ski lifts, three of which take you directly from the edge of town to the mountain.
Then there are the many apres-ski bars, where Jackson and other tourists party after a hard day on the slopes. “They are a bit like discos for teenagers, but full of men in their 50s,” he says.
On March 4th, after their first day’s skiing, his group of eight friends headed to a wooden-clad hut on the eastern side of town called Niki’s Stadl, after its hard-partying late owner Niki Ganahl, a former skier on the Austrian national team turned musician who died of a heart attack in 2015, aged 58.
Beer and Jägermeister shots are around half the price they are across the border in Switzerland, and in Niki’s Stadl they flow freely from 3pm until the early hours (the bar stays open until the last punter leaves).
From a booth in the middle of the bar a DJ plays the local flavour of schlager pop, an unforgiving stream of four-to-the-floor beats laced with three-syllable choruses as deliberately dumb as they are easy to sing along to: “Oh Le Le”, “Blah Blah Blah” or “Saufi Saufi” (“Boozy Boozy”). Sometimes the entire dancefloor forms a conga and tramps to the bar across the road.
When we speak four months later Jackson can’t get one blurry memory from that night out of his mind. “They have this massive red button next to the DJ booth, like something out of a TV quiz show. When you press it the music goes slightly quieter for 20 seconds and a siren goes off. My mate Declan got obsessed with pressing that button. He was a bit drunk and it became this game where we all had to. We must have pressed it 50 times that night. You had to push it with the palm of your hand and by the end of the night the button was slippery with sweat.”
Three days after returning home on March 7th, Jackson developed a pain in his back and joints, and lost his sense of taste. For the next four weeks he felt utterly exhausted and was unable to work, often going to bed in the afternoon. Months later an antibody test confirmed that he had had Covid-19.
“The virus didn’t kill me, but it made me feel unwell for a very long time,” he says.
Jackson was one of the lucky ones.
At least 28 people who visited Ischgl in late February and early March died of Covid-19. Four of the eight men in Jackson’s group fell ill with the virus on their return. Many thousands more are thought to have caught it at the resort.
By mid-March it was clear that tourists travelling in and out of the Paznaun valley had been the key accelerators behind the first wave of the virus on the European continent.
Covid-19, the “viral pneumonia of unknown cause” that Chinese officials first reported in Wuhan on January 3rd, has transformed our way of life, upended geopolitics and precipitated an economic crisis of historic proportions.
It has also revealed a strain of puritanism among people who thought themselves tolerant liberals: because the virus thrives in social situations nothing has enraged us more during lockdown than seeing people having fun in large numbers.
In Europe nowhere has drawn more of this anger than Ischgl, dubbed “Ibiza on ice”. Outbreaks in northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have all been traced back to skiers returning home from the Paznaun valley, and the devastating reach of the Ischgl cluster is likely to be considerably wider: an Austrian lawyer compiling a class action lawsuit against the Tirol region, alleging it failed in its public health duties, has gathered the signatures of more than 6,000 tourists from 47 countries who believe they caught the virus in Ischgl, including people from Ireland, the UK, Canada, Cambodia and Zimbabwe.
In Germany, which supplies Ischgl with most of its guests, the outbreak has been the subject of a diplomatic war of words between Austrian and German politicians, who accuse each other of negligence, as well as numerous front pages.
Fear of being branded the “next Ischgl” helped to enforce lockdowns across central Europe, such is the stigma attached to the resort’s name.
Meanwhile, business owners in Ischgl say they have been scapegoated and that reports of orgiastic scenes are gross exaggerations. (Writing in the Daily Mail, columnist Jan Moir condemned skiers who had reportedly been playing a variation of beer pong, in which you spit a ball into a beer glass, with several players using the same ball. But none of the people I interviewed for this article can recall such a drinking game.) To an extent the people who work in Ischgl have a point. The focus on a frantic party scene has helped to distract from bigger decisions taken – or not taken – behind the scenes, the missed warnings and a key question: did the authorities prioritise economic factors over the health of residents and visitors?
On March 4th, Jackson and his friends had already stumbled out of Niki’s Stadl and gone to bed when an email arrived at the nearby hotel Nevada. Delivered at 11.45pm, it came from an Icelandic tourist who informed the management that she and two family members who had stayed at the hotel the previous week had tested positive for Covid-19 on their return to Reykjavik.
The woman added that she did not know if she had already been infectious in Ischgl, and that it was possible that she caught the virus on the journey home. Her airline had told her that her group flew on the same plane as an infected man who had been skiing in Italy.
The woman had been with three groups of Icelandic tourists, 25 people in all, who knew each other and were staying across two hotels and a set of apartments, from February 22nd-29th. Several were doctors, so the group had been following the news about the novel coronavirus more closely than other tourists.
After one of the Icelandic tourists developed symptoms on February 26th, and another began to feel unwell on the flight home, the group was on high alert. Haraldur Eyvinds Thrastarson, an IT manager who was concerned about infecting 600-plus colleagues, had a test after returning to Reykjavik.
“In Iceland we allowed the doctors to take over from politicians for a few weeks,” he says. “That really made the difference.”
Iceland started offering Covid-19 tests at the end of January, carrying them out on those with and without symptoms in the months that followed, giving it the highest per capita testing rate at the beginning of the pandemic outbreak.
By the evening of March 3rd, Thrastarson was confirmed as one of an eventual 16 positive cases among the group. Shortly before midnight on March 4th, Iceland’s top health authority sent a message to its counterpart in Vienna via the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), a web-based platform linking public health authorities across the EU.
On the morning of March 5th, Iceland declared Ischgl a high-risk destination, in the same category as Wuhan and Iran. The same day an emergency meeting of a corona crisis task force was called in Ischgl for 1pm, with the Icelandic cases to be discussed at a meeting of health authorities for the Tirol region.
Yet when the Tirol’s public health officer sent out a press release later that day, it was not to put the region on high alert, but to call off a panic. In the statement, which is still online, the state medical director, Franz Katzgraber, said it was probable that the Icelandic tourists had caught the virus on the plane from Munich to Reykjavik: “From a medical perspective it seems not very likely that infections took place in Tirol.”
The response of an entire region now leaned precariously on a final half-sentence in the Icelandic tourist’s email – the suggestion that she might have caught Covid-19 from an Italian skier.
On Saturday, March 7th, Jackson and his friends checked out of their hotel. Staff cleaned their rooms, changed the bedding and checked in guests for another week.
Ischgl is not just a party destination; it’s a party destination catering for people with money. There are designer boutiques and five- and four-star hotels, restaurants selling wagyu beef burgers and bottles of champagne at €600. In the streets posters advertise Top Of The Mountain concerts with A-list stars such as Rihanna and Elton John.
Every third euro earned in the Tirol comes directly or indirectly from tourism, predominantly visitors from Germany and Italy, who spend around €8.4 billion there every year.
Smooth transit links are a big part of the appeal, and this efficient turnaround of visitors contributes to Ischgl’s profitability compared with other resorts: an airport-style travelator shuttles tourists through a tunnel from one side of town to the other. But the key economic driver is the ski lifts, used by 17 million people every year.
“We are the cable car company with the highest turnover in Austria, by some distance,” says Alexander von der Thannen (49), who heads the Ischgl Paznaun Tourist Association. “Our cable car makes over €80 million – the next one after that is Kitzbühel with €60 million.” (In the curtailed 2019/20 season the cable car company still had a turnover of €58.5 million.)
Typically of local businessmen, Von der Thannen has several jobs: he is also the Tirolean Chamber for Commerce spokesman on tourism, managing director of the five-star Trofana Royal hotel and owns an apres-ski bar Trofana Alm.
People who come to Ischgl, Von der Thannen says, “don’t just ski, they also consume”.
He believes that Europe has pointed the finger at Ischgl partly through resentment at its commercial success.
“Maybe what we are seeing is also the culture of envy: we are too big, we grew too fast. We’ve polarised opinion, deliberately so. We brought megastars to Ischgl – like Robbie Williams, Katy Perry, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart – who performed concerts on the top of the mountain. Maybe not everyone liked seeing that.”
But by the start of the second week of March, the fear that mishandling an outbreak of the virus could permanently damage the town’s reputation was at the forefront of the minds of senior officials and businessmen in Ischgl.
On Saturday, March 7th, the resort’s changeover day, a 36-year-old Norwegian became the first person to test positive for Covid-19 in the town itself, after experiencing light symptoms and a headache. He worked as a barman at Kitzloch, opposite Niki’s Stadl, where the Icelanders had also spent two evenings.
“There was speculation that he had just come back from a holiday in Italy,” says Bernhard Zangerl, Kitzloch’s manager. “That wasn’t true. He was here throughout.”
The inside of the bar was immediately disinfected, and 22 of the barman’s close contacts were told to self-isolate.
Yet, on the Sunday, Tirol health authorities insisted it was “unlikely, from a medical perspective”, that the virus could have been transferred from staff to tourists.
At 3.53pm on Monday, March 9th, an Austrian news agency announced that 15 people who had been in contact with the Kitzloch barman had also tested positive.
Seven minutes later, Zangerl’s father, Peter, who owns Kitzloch, got a text message: “Dear Peter,” it read. “Please call me back or shut down your Kitz bar – or you will be to blame for the end of the season in Ischgl and possibly Tirol.”
The text, which was later leaked to an Austrian blog, came from Franz Hörl, deputy head of the Tirolean Chamber of Commerce, spokesman for the association of cable car operators and a member of the conservative Austrian People’s party (OVP).
Soon after Hörl sent a second message: “The entire country is watching your bar,” it said, warning that Tirol might be added to the German foreign office list of high-risk areas. “Please be reasonable,” Hörl begged Zangerl, ending on a promise: “After a week [or] 10 days the furore will have died down and you can decide on the next steps anyway.”
By 6pm, the Kitzloch bar had shut its doors. The lawyers now bringing a class action against Ischgl argue that the entire resort should have immediately followed suit. One of them, Dr Peter Kolba, who is also president of the Austrian Consumer Protection Association, tells me: “If Ischgl had been quarantined a week earlier, thousands of holidaymakers would not have been infected. And the virus would not have spread across Europe.”
When Nigel Mallender (56) arrived in Ischgl on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 10th, he headed straight to Schatzi bar. The venue, where young women in skimpy outfits dance on the tables, was so crowded that he remembers having to walk sideways to get around the bar.
Earlier in the day regional authorities had ordered all Ischgl’s bars to close “with immediate effect”; but on Tuesday night the ruling was not yet being policed. Some bars, including Schatzi and Trofana Alm, owned by Von der Thannen, kept their doors open and were busier due to the other closures. “It felt like business as usual,” says Mallender, who spent about five hours at Schatzi.
Police began to enforce the ban the following day, but restaurants and hotel bars remained open on Wednesday and Thursday. Ski lifts continued to carry tourists up the mountain at half capacity. In the case of the resort’s largest gondola lift, the Piz Val Gronda E5, this meant that up to 75 skiers at a time spent six minutes inside a closed cabin.
“We didn’t think we had to panic,” Mallender says. “The Austrians came across as calm and sensible.”
The illusion that the clean alpine air would somehow inoculate people from a global pandemic would not dissipate until 2.15pm on Friday, when Mallender received a call from his hotel: “That’s when the bad disaster movie started.” At a press conference 15 minutes earlier, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz had announced that the entire Paznaun valley would be quarantined “with immediate effect”. Tourists were advised to leave the valley “speedily” and go home.
Mallender, who was staying in the neighbouring village of Galtür, rushed down the mountain, bundled his belongings into a suitcase and tried to book a taxi, to no avail. Panicking, he hurried to the town centre and managed to jump on a bus to Landeck, where he could get a train to Innsbruck, the Tirol capital.
“By the time the bus got to Ischgl it was standing room only, and the bus was moving at walking pace through nose-to-tail traffic.”
The sudden mass evacuation meant it took the bus, packed with around 25 people, 7½ hours to get to Landeck, usually a 40-minute journey.
On Friday night, in a hotel in Innsbruck, Mallender woke up drenched in sweat and suffering from back pain. He tried his best to distance himself from other passengers on his plane home, and self-isolated as soon as he arrived in the UK on the Sunday.
Eleven days later he was taken to hospital; by then he was failing to put three words together without struggling for breath. Speaking on the phone from Hampshire, his voice quivers when he recalls leaving his family behind, unsure if he would see them again.
Mallender decided to join the class action because he believes the way the authorities handled the outbreak efficiently exported the virus abroad.
“By making everyone leave at the same time they compounded the problem. Anyone on that bus who hadn’t already been infected would have been drenched in the virus by the end of the journey.
“I don’t believe in blame culture,” Mallender adds, “but there was more than a whiff of the Amity Island mayor in Jaws to what happened in the Paznaun valley. If people died because profit was put before wellbeing then that has to be called into question. I am not after financial gain, but there needs to be an open investigation.”
Other visitors report similar problems getting out of the valley. Lisa Busby (54), from Brighton, and four friends were staying at a hotel in St Anton, in the next valley along from Ischgl. After their hotel told them about the pending evacuation on Friday, March 13th, they couldn’t get a taxi or squeeze on to the packed buses.
“Everyone was rushing to get out because they were terrified of having to stay here in quarantine,” she says. “We were completely stuck.”
The women could not believe their luck when a German tourist offered them a lift all the way to Munich. At the end of the journey they exchanged numbers. Two days later Busby and her friends started to feel unwell. On March 22nd their German driver texted to say he had tested positive for Covid-19.
When I speak to Busby in early August, she still hasn’t recovered her sense of taste or smell, and is certain she had the virus though neither she nor her friends were tested at the time.
Johann Friedrich (68), a sporty Austrian who lives near Vienna, arrived in Ischgl with four friends for a week’s skiing on March 7th. His hotel roommate, Hannes Schopf (72), a journalist, got a call from his wife towards the end of their holiday, telling them to get out as soon as possible. They too squeezed on to a packed bus.
Friedrich later experienced only mild symptoms, but his friend was less lucky. On April 10th, Schopf died in hospital, having been unable to see his wife again. Friedrich believes there is a good chance his group caught the virus on the bus out. Neither he nor Schopf had visited a bar on their holiday.
In early July, the blanket of snow on the mountains flanking Ischgl has melted into a couple of thin patches. The sky is blue and the sun beats down on green meadows. Most bars, cafes and restaurants are shut; only a few cyclists and hikers pass through the town. The posters still advertise apres-ski parties and lapdancing, but the sound systems are quiet.
For the off-season the calm is nothing out of the ordinary. Yet the sense of unease unwittingly conveyed by Ischgl’s tourism slogan emblazoned on park benches, posters and ski lifts – “Relax. If you can... ” – seems more apt than ever. Local people are reluctant to engage in conversation, let alone be interviewed.
Behind the scenes work is going ahead in anticipation of another tourist season starting in November: terraces are being washed and workmen are carrying out maintenance on the cable cars. The Trofana Alm bar has been torn down, to be rebuilt on the same site by November.
“Everything will be new, more modern, with a new ventilation system,” Von der Thannen says, over morning coffee. “There will be more space for a bigger kitchen, but apart from that everything will stay the same.” The planning application, he says, was made last December, long before anyone had heard of Covid-19.
Lockdown has cost Ischgl around 25 per cent to 30 per cent of its annual trade, but Von der Thannen is optimistic that the resort’s reputation won’t be tarnished permanently by its association with the virus.
Kolba sees things differently. His criminal complaint, submitted to Austria’s Federal Economic and Anti-Corruption Office in June, urges the state prosecutor to examine why venues such as Von der Thannen’s bar shut down so late, and the role they played in allowing the virus to spread.
The 36-page legal document names 21 bar owners and local officials as potential suspects, though Kolba says the complaint is ultimately directed against the Austrian government and its “calculated export” of the virus.
While the public prosecutor in Innsbruck continues to gather evidence, Kolba is planning to launch a civil test case in early September. If successful the Austrian government could be liable for hundreds of millions of euro in settlement compensation, for signatories including Charlie Jackson, Johann Friedrich, Nigel Mallender and Lisa Busby.
Irrespective of the legal challenge, Ischgl is likely to change.
In future, Von der Thannen says, the town will have to be more cautious about who it allows to visit: “There are certain kinds of guests we no longer want to see here.”
Too many tourists head straight for the bars, without ever making it to the slopes: Von der Thannen suggests that visitors should be allowed a parking ticket only if they also buy a ski pass, which costs €58 a day at the height of the season. “Guests who come for the skiing, who have booked a room – they are welcome,” he says.
And skiing, Von der Thannen points out, keeps you healthy. In late April a group of virologists came to the valley to mass-test the population and found that while more than 40 per cent had developed Covid-19 antibodies, only 15 per cent had had any symptoms. “A tough people, very resistant,” Von der Thannen recalls one scientist saying. “Almost all the locals ski regularly. We are active and out in the open air. Our fathers and grandfathers worked the fields, and maybe we inherited their genes.
“A lot of things have been written about Ischgl that aren’t true. We have been bad-mouthed and mocked. Could a small village really have gone on to infect the entire world? Ten million people? Surely not.” – Guardian