For Middle Eastern Tourists, Only One Austrian Ski Town Will Do
Vacation often brings to mind relaxing on a sandy white beach, enjoying the surf and sun. But if you live in the Middle East, where the beaches can hit triple digits, it makes a whole lot more sense to head for cooler climes. And many in the Persian Gulf region head for the Austrian resort town of Zell am See for a cool holiday in the mountains.
Dutch photographer Marieke van der Velden joined the sightseers seeking R&R in Zell am See for her series Das Paradies. The picturesque town sits at the edge of Lake Zell, with Mt. Schmittenhöhe rising 6,400 feet above the city. There’s no shortage of fun, with plenty of hiking, cycling, golfing, swimming, and, of course, skiing. The town, long a popular tourist destination, has in the past decade catered specifically to visitors from the Persian Gulf, giving rise to Middle Eastern restaurants and advertised as “paradise.”
Van der Velden, who has done several projects about the Middle East, grew interested in the city after her husband returned from a trip there and mentioned its popularity. She and journalist Saskia Adriaens made a 600-mile road trip from Amsterdam in June, 2014, to see for themselves. They stayed for six days, meeting and photographing tourists from Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and beyond doing everything from skiing to snapping selfies. “The people were relaxed because of their holiday and they had time for us,” she says. “Most of them were for the first time in the snow, so their reactions were very funny.”
The influx of tourists—as many as 70,000 a year by one estimate—has not gone entirely smoothly in some quarters. Last May, the city published a controversial eight-page guide offering “cultural advice” to tourists. Among other things, it advised visitors to not wear traditional head coverings or barter over prices (it was later withdrawn). Locals didn’t have much to say when van der Velden and Adriaens asked them what they thought of it all, but “We also heard stories that people are afraid of losing their European guests,” she says.
Still, the photographer says they witnessed more openness than animosity. During the Zell Edelweisen feast, when locals gather to celebrate their heritage and traditions, a 26-year-old man from Saudi Arabia won second place in a yodeling contest, and everyone had a lovely time. Van der Velden hopes her photos reveal a side of the Middle East too often missing in the daily news. “In the Netherlands (and I think also in other countries) we get so much news every day about terrorism, bomb attacks,” she says. “It’s almost fascinating to hear the extreme judgments people have about populations they’ve never met in countries they’ve never been [to].”