By Kirsti Knolle
ZELL AM SEE, Austria, Sept 14 – While France’s seaside resorts grapple with the clash of cultures posed by Muslim women in “burkinis”, a tourist town in the Austrian Alps has grown used to visitors in Islamic dress tip-toeing over its pristine summer snow.
Zell am See’s high mountains, dense forests and crystal-clear lakes are a major draw for travellers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, who flee the blistering Arabian heat each year for the cool alpine air.
“It’s so beautiful here and rich in variety and not as hot as in Muscat. We love it,” Sultan, a 25-year-old airport worker honeymooning with his wife Marwa, said as they both gazed in wonder from a funicular railway cabin as it climbed towards a glacier 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) high.
“Sellamsi,” they pronounce the town’s name, which resonates with “Salaam,” the Arabic for peace.
But in a country that may be about to elect a far-right head of state, the sight of veiled women with their families wrapped up in rented ski jackets and thrilled about a small sledge run on the glacier, is not one that everyone welcomes.
While like many of the female Arab tourists, 21-year-old pharmacist Marwa wore a headscarf, others were in full-face veils, something many Austrians find unacceptable.
The anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO), whose candidate Norbert Hofer hopes to be elected the European Union’s first far-right head of state before the end of the year, has called for a ban on the face veil.
Even Austria’s foreign minister, from the centrist People’s Party, has called the veil a symbol of a “counter-society” that hinders integration.
But in Zell am See, locals who rely on tourism fear a ban – such as the one attempted on French beaches – could drive away the Arabs who come in numbers almost as large as the Germans in summer but spend far more.
“A full-face veil ban would be no good for the region,” said Andreas Schernthaner, who runs a souvenir shop where costume dolls and sweets are popular among his Muslim customers, many of whom cover their faces, as gifts for relatives back home.
Zell am See’s more than 40 hotels and 60 restaurants warmly welcome travellers such as Sultan and Marwa whose spending compensates for revenue drops of up to 30 percent seen since Russian guests began staying away due to a tumbling rouble.
Arabs accounted for more than 20 percent of hotel stays in May-July, nearly the same as Germans who usually make up around a quarter of guests, according to Statistik Austria.
With daily expenditure of 225 euros ($252) per person, Arab visitors rank third behind U.S. and Japanese tourists. But, unlike the others, they bring big families. German tourists spend an average 133 euros per day.
While their money has been welcome from the start, the clash of cultures led to initial difficulties and complaints by locals in Zell am See.
An etiquette leaflet issued by the local tourism board – which told Arab tourists to stop haggling over prices, cooking in their rooms and dumping litter – caused controversy in the media two years ago. But feelings have calmed down since.
“It is a process of mutual learning,” said Andreas Lederer, the owner of a hotel where more than half the summer guests are from Arab countries.
Even the Freedom Party, which is riding a wave of Europe-wide nationalism due to fears about Islamist militancy and the huge number of Syrian refugees coming to the EU, is keen not to dampen the lucrative tourist market.
The party’s local head, Kurt Kranabether, said Muslim women’s dress habits had eased. Many who wore the face veil five years ago were now just wearing a headscarf, he said, an observation that souvenir shop-owner Schernthaner confirmed.
“Anti-Islamic rhetoric is not on the agenda here,” said Kranabether.
“That’s more an issue in the big cities which have to deal with many asylum-seekers.”