There is reason to celebrate in Ischgl in the heart of the Tyrolean Alps: the snow is crisp and the Flügels and Jägerbombs are selling well again – and all within a new “covid-safe” environment.
Ischgl, you may remember, made global headlines in March 2020 when it was blamed, unfairly as it turns out, for putting rocket burners under the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in Europe.
Thousands of infections in Germany, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and the UK were traced back to the resort, known for its special mix of snow-sure pistes, fine dining and après-ski hedonism.
Videos circulated of the now notorious Kitzloch bar packed to bursting point with its clientele singing along to AC-DC’s Highway to Hell. It was said that ‘beer pong’ – a drinking game in which revellers take turns to spit a ping-pong ball into a beer glass – was widely practised there.
Prosecutors in Innsbruck launched a criminal investigation after it was alleged the local authorities had behaved “like the mayor from Jaws” by covering up early cases.
But fast forward to January 2022 and I can report things in Ischgl are much improved. Indeed, while carving powder turns under a bright blue sky on Wednesday morning this week, I was pretty certain there was no better place in the world.
Perhaps two years of intermittent lockdown had heightened the senses, and yes, the thought of a world-beating Wiener schnitzel for lunch may have helped. But make no mistake: Ischgl, scene of one of the pandemic’s biggest superspreading events, is back on form again.
You see it in the infectious grin of Bernhard Zangerl, the 27-year-old manager of the Kitzloch as he and his lederhosen-clad staff pull beers and serve the vodka/Red Bull shots known as Flügels again by the dozen.
Business is only at 50 to 60 percent of its previous highs, but he says the vaccine passports now scanned at the door as a strict condition of entrance reveal customers are returning to Ischgl from places as far afield as Singapore, Australia and Mexico.
“2020 was not the best first season for us,” adds the jolly but understated Herr Zangerl, whose family only bought the two-storey restaurant and après-ski business in 2019.
“My father jokes that he dare not leave me alone anymore. He says he turned his back for only a moment and we became world news.”
Herr Zangerl showed me, with some pride, a video of the bar serving a record single order of 1,001 Flügels in January 2020, just a month before the virus hit. But he says the beer-pong story is “completely untrue,” as are allegations of a cover up.
“We had people with colds like we do every year but we didn’t think anything of it. There was no testing then. We were caught by surprise just like everyone else, and I think everyone can see that now.”
The Austrian authorities have reached the same conclusion. The Innsbruck state prosecutor concluded its 18-month probe into criminal liability in Ischgl two months ago, saying it could find no case to answer.
“There is no evidence that the authorities were culpable of doing, or refraining from doing, something that would have led to an increase in the risk of infections,” said the prosecutor in a statement.
“The investigations into the spread of coronavirus in Ischgl in spring 2020 have been discontinued.”
Ischgl was closed for all of the 2021 ski season and was set to reopen in late November. Plans for its traditional ‘Top of the Mountain’ opening rock concert, previously headlined by the likes of Elton John and The Beach Boys, were replaced with a classical event, to be fronted by three Italian tenors. The aim was to rebuild consumer confidence and reflect the “emotion” of the pandemic, says Arnold Tschiderer, a local hotel owner and deputy chair of the local tourist board.
But a surge in the delta variant across Europe forced another lockdown in Austria, cancelling the concert and all but wiping out the early part of the ski season. “We hope we will never see another lockdown again,” says Herr Tschiderer. “Rules, ‘yes’, lockdown, ‘no’”.
Last week, this formula seemed to be working, even as omicron cases continued to climb in Austria and much of Europe.
The resort was by no means packed but its buzz was back, with most of the bars, restaurants and hotels on their way to bustling again. There were no queues on the slopes but everywhere you looked there were happy people slipping and sliding down the resort’s immaculately groomed pistes.
“It’s not normal but it’s nearly normal,” said Christoph, our ski guide, before removing his mask and directing us down another gully filled with soft mid-winter snow.
Like many in Ischgl and around the world, Christoph’s outlook has been changed by the pandemic.
“My father nearly died. He was in the hospital for more than a month, on a blood transfusion machine. It was a terrible time. It makes you appreciate this more,” he said, gesturing to the mountainous panorama in front of us.
The sunlit view of the alpine massif where Austria, Italy and Switzerland meet is one of the most spectacular in the world. The Alps stretch all the way to the horizon, different shades of blue and grey creating distinct layers. It’s no wonder Ernest Hemingway liked to do his ski touring here in what he called this “alien world.”
The mountains are unchanged, but what Hemingway would have made of Ischgl’s extensive Covid controls is anyone’s guess.
You need proof of full vaccination to enter all hotels, bars and restaurants, and even to buy a lift pass. There’s a strict 10pm curfew and FFP2 face masks must be worn nearly everywhere. Expect to be harangued by loudspeaker if you forget to put your mask on while you wait for a chairlift.
Even the lift and sewerage systems have been upgraded in a bid to keep down the virus. The lift company has spent around €700,000 on hygiene measures, including new “intelligent” camera systems on the main lifts, which aim to reduce crowding.
The cable cars themselves are disinfected regularly using “cold fogging” equipment, as are all the resort’s buses, sports shops, toilet facilities and first aid stations.
The Paznaun Valley, where Ischgl is situated, was also one of the first to introduce regular “wastewater monitoring,” meaning the authorities should get early warning of a serious outbreak through resorts’ waste pipes.
If you are thinking that much of this sounds like “Covid theatre,” many in the town would privately agree with you, as would I.
But it’s these measures that have allowed Ischgl to reopen and – more importantly – encouraged so many of its customers to return.
As we climbed slowly to the entrance of one of the resort’s long off-piste descents, I asked Christoph what he thought about all the rules. “If it means we can ski lines like this, I don’t care,” he says without a moment’s hesitation.
And with that, I would find it impossible to disagree.
How to do it
B&B accommodation at four-star Hotel Sonne (+43 5444 5302; sonne-ischgl.at) costs from £86 per night per room. easyJet (easyjet.com) operates up to 15 daily flights to Innsbruck from London Gatwick, Luton, Bristol and Manchester, prices starting at £16.99 one-way. A six-day lift pass for Ischgl, Samnaun, Galtur, Kappl and See Verbier Valley costs from €323.50 (ischgl.com). You can book equipment and ski guiding via mogasi.com