Walking into Hallstatt, Austria, was like walking into a picture perfect fairytale land – Minus the thousands of tourists wielding their enormous cameras. The town itself was quite literally picture perfect, as it is one of the most photographed towns in Austria and a World Heritage site. The small town of Hallstatt is nestled in between Lake Hallstatt and the towering Austrian mountain, the Dachstein. Not only is this town incredibly aesthetic, it also has history that dates back to the Neolithic time period. Hallstatt has an ancient history of salt mining and consequentially a prehistoric cemetery was found on one of Hallstatt’s rolling hills.
Hallstatt is not a place that one merely stumbles across. Its location being nestled in the mountains and countryside makes it very difficult to access if not by car. Because of this, the majority of people who visit Hallstatt are tourists who have heard about this picture-perfect town from the internet. I myself stumbled across a photograph on Instagram of this town which led me to bring my family here. We only stayed in the small town for one night, and that night was more than enough time to explore the small town. When I got to Hallstatt it certainly lived up to my expectations visually, but the volume of tourists in the tiny town gave the place a much less genuine feel and felt more like an amusement park. For a place that you can walk from end to end in ten minutes, it gets am enormous amount of tourists annually – Around 800,000 per year. This volume of people means that tourism is the main source of income for many residents of Hallstatt. There are bed and breakfasts in every other house, and stores that sell a variety of “local handmade” items that tourists cannot buy enough of. Also, because of Hallstatt’s history as an old salt mining town, you can buy salt everywhere in all forms – Lamps, seasoning, soaps, statues... You name it they have it.
As much profit as the locals of Hallstatt get from all the tourism, I could tell many of them absolutely despise the whole ordeal. As I walked down the narrow streets, locals would speed past tourists in their small cars, making them jump out of the way, and parents walking their children to school would scowl at the groups of people taking pictures in front of their houses. Many of the houses had signs on the doors of a camera with a line through it, “no drones”, or “no photographs”.
I found myself holding back from taking too many photographs in Hallstatt because of all the signs and also just the guilt of being in the massive group of tourists. As I stood and looked out over Lake Hallstatt, I found myself watching others and observing how they were taking this breathtaking sight in. The majority of people that walked up to the water’s edge would never truly look with their bare eyes, they would take a few photographs, then when they were satisfied, they would turn around and walk away without ever using the lens of their own eyes. This made me so much more aware of my own habits of taking pictures, and for the rest of the trip I put my camera away. The woman who ran the bed and breakfast that we stayed at was born and raised in Hallstatt and gave is interesting insight on tourism in Hallstatt. The woman said that locals try to avoid even walking on the streets in the daytime, and will either stay inside or leave the town for the day of they can. She also shared with us how since social media became more prevalent, there has been a boom in tourism. So many people share pictures of this beautiful town which draws others in.
I found it very interesting that the majority of tourists in Hallstatt were from China. During my travels in Europe, the masses of tourists are usually quite diverse, but in Hallstatt it seemed like it was very much geared towards Chinese tourists. There was actually a small store that stuck out in the center of town that sold traditional Chinese food and had the whole menu in Chinese. This was very out of place considering every other restaurant in town served your typical Austrian cuisine of schnitzel and goulash. Some of the shops also sold the very popular plush rabbit-fur keychain sold in many areas of the world but mainly associated with Singapore. For some reason in particular, Chinese people have taken a particular interest in this town, so much so that there is a replica of Hallstatt built in the province of Guangdong in China. This is essentially a very close match to the original town of Hallstatt. The town features an exact replica of the parish church and the infamous fountain that has become a background for thousands of photographs. This town is intended to be a high-end housing development for the wealthy. The whole replica was estimated to cost $940 million to build. This replica is very controversial to the residents of Hallstatt. On one hand, maybe people will go to the replica instead of the original which will reduce tourism, but on the other hand, this will give the town more exposure and will most likely lead to even more tourism.
Nighttime at Hallstatt is another town entirely. All the tour buses leave around five in the evening, so the only people that are left in the town are the small portion of tourists who are staying overnight in bed and breakfasts and the locals themselves. As soon as the sun goes down, the locals emerge from their dwellings like creatures of the night. As I walked through the town with my parents, we saw local children playing for the first time in the streets, and we heard people openly talking in German to one another. The best part about everything was the lack of cameras. The locals were simply existing in their environment without recording it, and it was lovely. I fell asleep that night in complete silence. The next morning, I got woken up at 6 am when a couple of newlyweds were having a photoshoot in front of the small house we were staying at.
There is a fine line when it comes to profitable tourism that helps a community grow and borderline exploitation of a community that puts stress on the culture of the environment. That fine line is a blurry one here in the small town of Hallstatt. With every picture posted that depicts the iridescent lake or the jagged cliffs of mount Dachstein, more and more people are compelled to visit this picturesque town. There comes a time when the cons of tourism outweigh the profits, and it looks like Hallstatt may be on that path. The world is so immense with countless beautiful and breathtaking sites to see, so it is understandable that these beautiful places are so frequently visited. However, I think that when traveling it is important to keep in mind the power of sharing a beautiful place online and also the stresses that you may cause on the environment you are traveling to.