Top photo: Governor Günther Platter ©Land Tirol/Berger
A Conversation with Günther Platter
Tyrol is a renowned and highly recognized brand throughout the world. Tourism, skiing, traditions, and images of the rustic, earthy Tyrolean come to mind. It has, however, also become a very modern place with high-tech businesses and lots of innovation. How did Tyrol manage to get there? Can you tell us about the path the region has taken embracing tradition and modernity? What were the challenges along the way?
Basically, Tyrol relies on three pillars of strength: first – tourism (we are the “holiday paradise” at the heart of the Alps), second – research and education (where we are fostering an international network of ideas), and third – the economy. We are a high-quality location for business, offering great infrastructure and a skilled work force. Within the so-called “smart region Tyrol” we have invested heavily in research, sciences, and education.
There are three universities, five colleges and eighteen research hubs and centers of excellence. Their main strengths lie in the fields of life sciences, mechatronic, renewable energies, information technology, and wellness. We believe that tradition and modernity are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, one enriches and strengthens the other. For example, one of the most accomplished Tyrolean scientists, Rainer Blatt, excels in quantum physics and is also the Kapellmeister (musical director) of his local village band.
Given its geographic location at the center of Europe, Tyrol has always been at a crossroads. What does this mean for Tyrol today?
It definitely gives us a locational advantage. If you look at 192 regions in Western Europe, Tyrol ranks within the top 50 in terms of taxation, accessibility, potential for innovation, as well as legal framework. Its central location in the heart of the Alps is also an important criterion for the ten million tourists who annually choose Tyrol as their holiday destination. Every third Euro is earned directly or indirectly through the tourism industry. The U.S. is by far the most important long distance market, holding a 0.5% market share and ranking number fifteen among regions of origin. Over 78,000 U.S. guest arrivals and over 200,000 stays were registered during the past tourism year. Transportation and traffic – a lifeline and a challenge at the same time.
How can Tyrol’s important role as transport hub be balanced with the requirements of environmental protection?
We are currently working on the Brenner Basistunnel, which is, at the moment, the largest environmental and infrastructure project in Europe. Once finished,it will be the longest rail tunnel in the world (62,7 km / 39 miles). We also encourage our guests to use rail transportation. As of now, about 5-6% of all tourists arrive by rail. We would like to increase this segment up to 10% by the year 2020.
How would you describe the environmental and energy policy of Tyrol?
Sustainability is a very important part of our environmental and energy policy. Our aim is to reach energy autonomy in Tyrol by 2030. Continued use and expansion of hydropower will allow us to achieve greater energy independence and to keep the cost of electricity at a low level. Energy is getting scarcer and more expensive, but through the use of hydropower we are holding all the aces.
Can you give us an overview of the modern business sector in Tyrol? Are there any U.S. companies?
First of all, there is GE Jenbacher, owned by General Electric (GE Energy group), one of the leading producers of gas motors and thermal power stations. GE Jenbacher accounts for 1,300 jobs in Tyrol. Other companies include the European headquarters of both Burton and Armada Ski, as well as the security software producer Barracuda. The business sector in general comprises a wide variety of branches.
While there are some globally well-known companies like Swarovski or Plansee, most companies are small and medium-sized and many of them are family run. There are also many world market leaders in niche areas, e.g. Tyrolit (producer of abrasives/buffing materials), MED-EL (cochlear implant), ILF (tunnel construction), Riedel (glassware), Swarco (traffic control systems), Durst (inkjet printers), VIRZT (virtual film studios), and Egger (thin particle boards).
Tyroleans were traditionally part of the “early globalizers.” Are there points of contact between the U.S. and Tyrol, or between specific regions in the U.S. and Tyrol?
Among Austrian provinces, Tyrol is one of the largest exporters to the U.S., with a volume of about 700 million Euros. The U.S. is also the fifth most important export market for the Tyrolean economy, accounting for 7% of all Tyrolean exports. Be it by way of cooperation or acquisition, some of Tyrol’s most renowned companies (like Plansee, Swarovski, Tyrolit, or TISUN, among others) are successfully operating in the U.S. In Sun Valley, TechnoAlpin Austria is running the largest automatic snow blower in the U.S. Stratodesk has won major clients in the fields of biotech, banking, and higher education for its terminal services.
At the nexus of the economy and science, Tyrol and the U.S. have developed a strong culture of cooperation in applied sciences. This has fostered the establishment of joint research competencies and the application thereof. The research center ONCOTYROL is one example. There, partners from the fields of industry and academia jointly research and develop new therapeutic approaches for the individual treatment of cancer patients. Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts and Protagen AG in New Jersey are the U.S. academic and business partners in this joint venture. The Tyrolean company MED-EL and Duke University were recently awarded the Lasker Prize (the highest U.S. award for medical science) for their cooperation in the development of modern cochlear implants. Furthermore, Tyrolean and U.S. universities are also closely linked.The Austrian Academy of Sciences’ renowned Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information is working in close cooperation with Cornell University in New York and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
For over 30 years, the very successful partnership between the University of Innsbruck and The University of New Orleans has allowed generations of students from both sides of the Atlantic to learn about the culture, politics, history, and society of the U.S. and Austria. The University of Innsbruck and the Management Center Innsbruck are in close contact with a variety of partner institutions in the U.S., including the renowned University of Notre Dame. In this context of academic exchange, I would also like to highlight the meritori-ous work of the Fulbright Commission and the American Corner Innsbruck in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Vienna.
Are there any famous Tyroleans living in the U.S. or have well-known Americans settled in Tyrol?
Yes, there are a number of Tyroleans in the U.S., who have made quite a name for themselves. This includes, among others, Klaus Heidegger, a former Alpine skiing star and now a successful entrepreneur, the jazz trumpeter Franz Hackl, who is also a good friend of mine, the architect of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, Raimund Abraham, who tragically passed away way too soon a few years ago, as well as many culinary Ambassadors, especially Aldo Sohm (Chef Sommelier at Le Bernardin in New York City). Thanks to the partnership with the Ötz Valley (Tyrol’s longest side valley), many U.S. ski stars reside in Tyrol.
Altogether there are currently 395 U.S. citizens living in Tyrol, many of whom work in the fields of academia and research in particular. Tyrol is also famous for conventions, and we are happy to regularly welcome a number of renowned American scientists to conventions, which are taking place in Innsbruck or in the framework of the European Forum Alpbach. For almost 30 years, the San Antonio based St. Mary’s University School of Law has offered a summer program at the legal faculty of the University of Innsbruck. Members of the U.S. Supreme Court are guest stars at these programs. Finally, it is no secret that many famous U.S. citizens like to vacation privately in Tyrol. Just to give a few examples: Fritjof Capra, the renowned physicist, philosopher, and author, who was born in Austria and now lives in California, regularly visits Tyrol.
When 20-year-old Harvard law student John F. Kennedy travelled from Venice to Munich he made a stop in Tyrol and was “very impressed by the Austrians, since they are so different than the Italians.” His hostel however did not impress him as much. He commented, “Sleeping together with 40 other people is not that pleasant.” Ernest Hemingway hiked for several weeks in the Silvretta Mountains, a trip that also included a visit to the Jamtal Hütte. His story “An Alpine Idyll” was inspired by his sojourn in Galtür. Finally, the 1972 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator George Stanley Mc-Govern took regular vacations in Tyrol.
What is the role of culture and the arts in Tyrol?
According to market research, Tyrol is first and foremost associated with mountains, but culture and the arts are considered very important as well. Tyrol offers a vast and very broad array of artistic fields to choose from: traditional folk culture, baroque music, the chamber music festival in Wattens sponsored by Swarovski, as well as the Tyrol Festival in the town of Erl, which features classical music and opera performances. There are more than 300 music bands in Tyrol. Actually, altogether there are more music bands than municipalities! In the field of architecture, Tyrol boasts a number of architectural icons in the midst of powerful mountains. This includes the Bergiselschanze in Innsbruck, the Galzigbahn, and Café 3440 on the Pitztal Glacier.
About Günther Platter
Günther Platter was born on June 7, 1954 in Zams in Tyrol. He started his political career as a councilman, and subsequently was elected mayor of Zams in Tyrol in 1989. From 1994 to 2000, he served as a member of the Austrian parliament before joining the state government of Tyrol in 2000. In 2003, he became the Austrian Federal Minister of Defense and Sports and from 2007 to 2008 he served as the Austrian Federal Minister of the Interior. Since July 1, 2008, he has held the office of Governor of Tyrol.