Anja Doedens and Willem Paeeks stroll through the Hofburg — the former Habsburg imperial palace on the last day of a four-day break in Austria’s capital. It has been a whirlwind trip.
“We’ve seen the Lipizzaners, Schöenbrunn, Prater,” Mr Paeeks says as he ticks off a list of some of the top spots in Vienna, including the famous white horses and the large park where the Ferris wheel stands. “And lots of Sachertorte,” adds Ms Doedens. “Lots of chocolate cake.”
The couple have joined a worldwide tourism trend — visiting cities for extended weekends — and Vienna, consistently voted one of the most liveable places in the world, has benefited.
Over the past five years to 2014, the number of weekend visitors to Vienna has risen by 37 per cent to 13.5m overnight stays, surpassing the modest 6 per cent rise in tourism Austria-wide during that period.
Tourism now represents nearly 8 per cent of gross domestic product and generates some 350,000 jobs. In 2014 some 37.5m tourists spent a night in an Austrian hotel. Almost €36bn was spent by foreign and domestic travellers.
By far, the most popular destination was the capital Vienna — once the last stop before the Iron Curtain. Visits to Salzburg, too, have become popular. More than 1.5m people will this year visit the town that Mozart called home — a rise of 33 per cent from five years ago.
Tourism has become so important to the economy that city officials worry the build-up of refugees along the border with Germany will damp numbers. This year, for example, tourism at the Oktoberfest in Munich dropped 10 per cent because people could not reach the city by train.
The rise in weekend breaks is a trend that has arisen, in part, as busy couples and families adapt their holidays to meet work realities.
Austrian hoteliers and towns are adapting too. In addition to the active, sporty holiday, vacationers are also choosing to take time out simply to be with families often neglected at other times of the year.
The amount spent by foreign and domestic visitors in 2014
“Twenty years ago, people took three weeks off to really get to know a place,” says Ulrike Rauch-Keschmann, the spokeswoman for the Austrian Tourism board. “Nowadays we’re increasingly seeing people spend less than a week. They are travelling for shorter times, but more often.”
That means more city excursions, such as the one Ms Doedens and Mr Paeeks, who live near Amsterdam, are enjoying. The trend has meant that other cities, notably Salzburg, have benefited. Fernanda Rocha and Fabio Ramos travelled to the capital city from Brazil to enjoy Madam Butterfly at the Vienna State Opera. But first, they stopped in Salzburg to get their fix of Mozart. “The opera, that’s the main reason for our visit here. Brazil doesn’t have a lot to offer in that way,” says Mr Rocha.
A new trend involves three generations of family members meeting for a week of relaxation. Families with children often bring along grandparents. “Family time has become more important,” says Ms Rauch-Keschmann. “During the year, they felt they had too little time together, so they are yearning for more of that.”
Active holidays have always had a special place for this alpine nation. The Salzkammergut, Austria’s lake district, is set amid spectacular mountains suitable for day hikes and side trips.
Apart from limpid lakes, the area boasts well-marked hiking and cycling trails and attractive food and accommodation (though credit cards are still something of a novelty often viewed with suspicion).
The number of jobs generated by tourism last year
Historical sites around Austria include not just magnificent palaces, abbeys and churches, but Mauthausen concentration camp, now a museum dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust.
For the athletically minded, Austria’s highest mountain, the Grossglockner, beckons. From there, hikers can wander through 43 stages of a route to the Adriatic Sea that offers some of Europe’s most spectacular views.
Another route that winds through breathtaking scenery and romantic towns is the Mur River Bike Trail in Styria. Four-star hotels are strategically placed along the way for an afternoon of massages and saunas.
Skiing is still the main reason holidaymakers travel to Austria in the winter, to resorts such as Lech, Sölden, Kitzbühel or Obertauern. But even the nature of the traditional ski break has changed. Where once skiers hit the slopes from 9am to 4pm, now they may spend only half the day on skis and the rest of the time soaking in thermal water.