The grand old capital of Vienna was one of the first European cities to reopen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – Viennese hotels unlocked their doors just days ago on 29 May, while bars and restaurants have been back in business since mid-May. As lockdown lifts and restrictions are gradually eased, Rough Guides explores what this means for the travel industry, and what trips to the city might look like in the coming months. To gain more insight, we spoke to the Managing Director of the Vienna Tourist Board, Norbert Kettner, to dig a little deeper.
Q: Can you summarize the experience of Covid-19 in Vienna? What measures were taken and how did the population cope?
A: In Austria strict measures were taken at a comparably early stage – including the closure of shops, restaurants and schools. Fortunately, the restrictions showed positive impacts and restaurants and bars were reopened in mid-May. On Friday 29 May, hotels and leisure centres are allowed to reopen as well, which is a fantastic strive forwards.
Q: Vienna is one of the first European cities to reopen its hotels, restaurants and shops. Why do you think you are one of the first, and what does it feel like to be one of the first cities to open up?
A: Naturally it is a good feeling as it is a step in the right direction; however, I must say that, an open and welcoming city is nothing without visitors to enjoy it. We hope that other cities that are yet to reopen look to Vienna as a means of hope and guidance during these challenging times.
Q: What will reopening mean to the city and its inhabitants?
A: Reopening Vienna, or any city for that matter, is such a positive strive forward. There has been a great atmosphere in Vienna now that residents can go to a restaurant again or visit the city’s fantastic art galleries. However, given that Vienna is a very successful tourism destination, the rather quiet streets still look out of place. In 2019, 83% of overnight stays in Vienna were generated from international tourism – we miss our visitors and look forward to welcoming them again when the time is right.
Q: As countries around the world gradually lift their lockdowns, visitors are likely to be met with a raft of new rules to protect against Covid-19 when they return. Examples of new regulations include hotel visitor quotas, social distancing and even leaving the middle seat empty in planes. What differences will we see in Vienna?
A: Yes, travel will undoubtedly look different, be it in Vienna or any other city – but preparation and safety is key for us. Hotels have prepared for increased hygiene standards and social-distancing measures. Some outlets have taken this opportunity to get really creative, such as a Viennese cocktail bar strategically seating thirty elegantly styled mannequins throughout the bar to ensure that Austria’s distancing regulations are maintained. This particular initiative provided a fun and entertaining alternative for guests to enjoy their drink, whilst adhering to regulations. I think we will see more creative initiatives like this arise, with businesses supporting one another, alongside residents.
Generally speaking though and given the number of unknown factors related to the coronavirus crisis, Vienna is preparing for an “On/Off economy” (where restrictions will be lifted and potentially partially reinstated). This will become our reality and strategy in many sectors, not just tourism.
Q: How will social distancing affect tourists in the city?
A: A huge advantage that Vienna has over other cities is that it is one of the greenest cities in the world, with more than fifty percent given over to green spaces. As a leading green city, visitors can be confident of enjoying the city and parks whilst maintaining social distancing. Furthermore, Vienna is known for being very clean, safe and well functioning. These factors contributed to Vienna’s number-one rankings in Mercer and The Economist’s “most liveable city in the world” for years. Vienna’s excellent infrastructure and culture will be especially helpful in these challenging times.
Q: Are there any further limitations that travellers may have to expect for a while when coming to visit?
A: I think we will not see full concert halls with every single seat taken for a while. However, concert houses are reopening now as well – with limitations of course – which is great given that the city celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year. Concert houses are now allowed to show performances to audiences of up to one hundred people and in July this numbers will be increased to 250. Similarly in restaurants, people will have to wear masks when entering the venue but can take them off once they have reached their table/seat. Everyone, and especially gastronomy and art institutions, have to follow the strict and often complicated sets of rules and in turn, develop their own bespoke strategy to abide by these.
Q: How many visitors do you expect to see returning in June?
A: It is extremely hard to predict, but it is encouraging that all borders to Germany and Switzerland will open on 15 June. This is a great relief given that Germany is Vienna’s largest international market, however these times are full of uncertainty with a number of different factors at play. On the one hand, the number of possible holiday destinations is somewhat limited, which might lift our tourist industry and fill the hotel beds. On the flip side, the overall cautious sentiment can often result in people wanting to remain at home or only travel within their own country.
Q: Who will be booking early stays in the hotels, and visiting the restaurants and shops? Will they be mainly Viennese or domestic travellers? Or even business travellers?
A: Most likely they will be domestic travellers or those from countries our borders have opened up to. The increased use of remote working tools will affect business travel, but we do not know to what degree. I imagine many people will travel less for business, at least for the coming weeks.
Q: When do you expect to see consumer confidence in the travel industry return?
A: Enormous efforts are being made, both here in Vienna and also on a global scale to revive the travel industry and make it effective once more. We have to remain agile and flexible, with the ability to adapt to the new circumstances and new regulations. We understand it will take time, probably years, until we get back to the level we were used to in the tourism industry. Travelling is a gift, which we need to protect and provide.
Q: When do you expect to see international travellers return?
We are seeing promising signs. Now that our museums, restaurants, bars, and hotels are open again we hope to see travellers returning to Vienna again soon. The 29 May marked a historic moment, when Vienna’s Giant Ferris Wheel was switched back on, symbolizing the wheels of life and business starting to turn once more in the city. The landmark was turned off for the first time in 75 years in mid-March due to COVID-19, and now represents the movement of tourism and the city starting up again.
Borders to Germany and Switzerland will be fully open in mid-June, which is encouraging – and we hope many other countries to follow. Our national carrier Austrian Airlines will start operating again from 15 June with mostly European destinations and Tel Aviv. The situation is still fragile and we have to wait for final political decisions to truly understand when international travel can fully resume once more.
Q: What are your predictions for the tourist industry in Vienna for the rest of the year and into 2021?
A: Looking ahead to the rest of the year, we are confident that Vienna’s reputation as a very clean, safe and green city will help to attract those who are able and willing to travel this year. However, and quite honesty, I’m afraid to say that overall travel in 2020 has been hit badly and is somewhat lost. Vienna is an extremely successful meeting destination and unfortunately the fact that this sector will need more time to recover will clearly have a knock-on effect for the remaining year. Hotels need certain occupancy rates and all predictions and studies tell us that these won’t be reached this year as well. However, our hopes lie in a quick recovery in 2021.
Q: What lessons would you most like to see ordinary people and travellers taking with them once the pandemic has passed?
A: We see this as a chance to strengthen a form of tourism that we have been promoting for some time already and which is the core of our visitor economy strategy for Vienna – sustainable, thoughtful and healthy tourism. I strongly believe that people will appreciate and value travelling and foreign destinations more after this.
Top image: Tourists visiting famous Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria © Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock