Through the Wild Heart of Austria
How a trail can become a signature product for a region spanning three provinces in just a few years: With an intriguing storyboard, innovative marketing, and a trusting partnership of tourism destinations, protected areas, and the Trail Angels.
of the wild
„It is not at all decisive whether you encounter a track or may even see the lynx. He is always there anyway: He shows himself in the wilderness of the forests. He is a symbolic figure.“
Natural forest, wild animals and wilderness: what was once widespread and a threat to people has now become a rare gem. So rare that it must be vehemently protected. This is how the three protected areas came into being, the wilderness area Dürrenstein and the National Parks Kalkalpen and Gesäuse.
All this sounds like a suitable “living room” for lynxes. More than 100 years ago the lynxes were all exterminated in Austria. Today they are back again. The lynx is back and feels comfortable. It is worth living here, whereas in many other areas its habitat has disappeared due to human intervention. Lynxes are a wild species, every day becomes a question of survival and a challenge. The hikers should also feel a little bit of that, so the stages are not just strolls, but challenging hikes. The task of the protected areas concerning lynxes is also a great challenge: in order for the lynx to survive here in the long term, the small population must not only be secured, but an expansion to surrounding areas and the connection to populations in northern Austria and the southern neighboring countries are a must.
We humans come from the wilderness, an invisible bond to it was never completely broken. Today we live largely shielded from nature in cities and dense settlement areas. The threat of wilderness has disappeared and – the longing for it is coming back.
Therefore the “Luchs Trail” offers a special wilderness experience in the National Park Kalkalpen, the National Park Gesäuse and the wilderness area Dürrenstein. But also in between smaller “wild” areas are crossed, such as the biotope Steinwald on stage 8.
Even if the hiker will not physically get to see the mysterious lynx, its presence can always be felt. In the rustling of the thick treetops, in the cracking of the wood and in the moving scree of steep areas. The Luchs Trail as a kind of Snow Leopard Trail in Europe, as a symbol of wilderness and place of longing.
Feels at home in “Austria’s wild heart” with all its protected areas and the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site: The eponym of this Hall of Famer, the lynx ©Kalkalpen National Park
Wild water and steep rock – the Gesäuse National Park is one of the three large protected areas connected by the Luchs Trail ©TVB Gesäuse
Wild by nature: An impressive section of the Luchs Trail leads along the primeval mountain forests in the Dürrenstein Wilderness Area ©Wildnisgebiet Dürrenstein
Nature as far as the eye can see: The Reichraminger Hintergebirge in the Kalkalpen National Park is a worthy prelude to the hiking trip on the Luchs Trail ©Kalkalpen National Park
Also the area of today’s Luchs Trail was subject to a strong change in the 20th century. From the busy “Eisenwurzen”, a small structured iron processing region of former international importance, the processing companies moved north and south to more easily accessible areas. With the loss of jobs, the region became increasingly depopulated, and at the same time the pressure of utilization of the forests decreased.
The further social development has led to the fact that until today a decrease in population is noticeable. The job opportunities for young people are not promising, or at least not comparable to what cities have to offer. With emigration, the value added decreases this forms a downward spiral. A touristic revival is beneficial to the region and long-distance hiking is the gentlest component in terms of nature-compatible tourism.
While it became quiet around the Eisenwurzen, it also became quiet in the woods and a possible habitat for lynxes began to evolve. By means of slow natural immigration and stock support (release of wild caught lynx from neighboring countries) a small population of lynxes could actually develop. As for the juveniles, the prospects for the lynxes in the region are anything but promising. Lynxes by nature are slow to take possession of new habitats, their expansion behavior is not as successful as it is with wolves for example. Strictly protected by law, the lynxes struggle with great obstacles. These include the lack of genetic exchange with other populations, deaths from road traffic and unfortunately also illegal hunting (poaching).
New life can emerge from dead wood. Quite symbolic of the opportunities that sustainable tourism opens up, especially for peripheral rural regions ©Kalkalpen National Park
The field work, meaning the work directly with the lynxes, especially the monitoring, is done in the National Park Kalkalpen by Christian Fuxjäger, who has become an expert in the habitat and lifestyle of the lynx. He also passes on his knowledge to visitors during guided tours on the Luchs Trail. At least to those who managed to get one of the few slots for these guided tours.
The idea to connect the mountaineering villages Johnsbach and Lunz am See by a hiking trail originated from the Styrian Alpine Club.
Why the “Naturwaldweg” finally became such a great project in the name of the lynxes is due to the coincidental meeting of Herbert Wölger and Günter Mussnig from the Trail Angels. Without Günter Mussnig’s professional support and his know-how the trail would probably never have been realized in this successful form. The second component of success of the Luchs Trail is called cooperation. Formally bundled in the ARGE Luchs Trail, the three mentioned protected areas with the Nature and Geopark Styrian Eisenwurzen, as well as the tourist boards in the region have successfully launched the project in 2019.
The most important element in securing the lynx population is communication. Without a positive or at least neutral mood among the population, species protection of predators is not promising. Franz Sieghartsleitner, head of communication in the Kalkalpen National Park, is tirelessly committed to the lynx. He has also written a hiking guide to the Luchs Trail, which, in addition to technical details, also pays attention to species protection.
Left: The “father” of the Luchs Trail and chairman of the ARGE Luchs Trail: Herbert Wölger, in his “main job” Managing Director of the Gesäuse National Park ©Nationalpark Gesäuse
„Walking is incredibly simple. It stimulates your mind and brings stagnant thoughts back into flow. The movement of the body triggers an amazing amount of mental movement.“
In the beginning there was actually the Alpine Convention, which has been legally binding since 1995. This obligates the member states to establish the Ecological Network. The Limestone Alps and Gesäuse National Parks, the Dürrenstein Wilderness Area and the area in between have been designated by the Alpine Convention as a pilot region for ecological networking in the Alpine region and two projects have been implemented since 2008. As a sub-project the “Naturwaldweg” was developed in 2014 and presented without too much commitment. The path had potential, but there was a lack of broad support and application, but above all, as it became clear later, there was no emotional “story”.
The first task was to find partners to liven up the “Naturwaldweg”. Fortunately, all protected areas and tourist organizations showed a growing enthusiasm. For the representatives of tourism it was probably decisive that long-distance hiking now met the current trends. Thus the establishment of a working group was born, which was later named ARGE Luchs Trail. The first action of the consortium was a feasibility study, which resulted in a project layout that was largely ready for implementation. This study was not written by consultants at their desks, but was developed jointly by the ARGE. Following a selection process, the Trail Angels were hired for the accompanying consulting.
With the topic of the lynx, a powerful story was quickly found, which received full support from both nature conservation and tourism. “Walking through the lynx habitat. You may not see him, but his presence is noticeable”.
The “Naturwaldweg” was a circular hiking trail with the disadvantage of not having a clear destination. So two daily stages were removed from the ring, giving a start and a finish. The daily stages still had to be optimized in terms of distance, difficulty and overnight accommodation. Routes not officially used as hiking trails were avoided, the trail follows marked hiking trails and was additionally labeled (which turned out to be necessary).
To strengthen the good story with impressive pictures, a characteristic “image” of the Luchs Trail was created. This includes a uniform CI (logo, fonts, color) and especially a consistently used visual language and the joint definition of a few key visuals. In the end, not the existing conglomeration of landscape photos was used, but a photographer was obliged to take pictures of the entire trail according to strict guidelines.
An essential part of the concept from the very beginning was its bookability. Sleeping each night in a different place means – especially with limited capacities at several stages – a lot of organization effort for the reservation of the accommodations. Those who don’t want to take this on and who also have to deal with the question of luggage or backpack weight should have the possibility to book via a Booking Center, “outsource” the administrative booking effort and make use of additional services such as luggage transport.
The development of the concept, the implementation and the promotion cost money. Neither the nature reserves nor the tourism associations had sufficient budgets. As remedy different LEADER promotions were taken up and the pre-financing as well as all necessary own resources were raised by the partners together. Since little money was available for advertising, this was used very specifically, namely almost exclusively for social media (Facebook). By the way, the story is strong enough so that print media are happy to report editorially about the Luchs Trail.
Grand finale: From the picturesque Obersee lake, it’s not far to the end point of the Luchs Trail, Lunz am See. ©TVB Lunz am See
Hiking, long-distance hiking, longing for wilderness, protection of species, lynx: the theme of the Luchs Trail meets today’s zeitgeist in many ways. No wonder that the media echo for the peripheral region was enormous. Daily newspapers and travel magazines throughout Europe reported on the Luchs Trail, and the German magazine “Spiegel” ranked it among the top 10 best new long-distance trails.
The stringent visual appearance, which also continues in the signposting of the path and is coherent from A to Z, was able to attract attention despite a small budget. This goes so far that residents of the region increasingly walk individual sections in the hope of seeing the rare animal.
The hope of bringing additional value to the small family businesses along the trail has been fulfilled. Already in the first year the participating companies stated in a survey that they clearly felt the new hikers in their turnover. The turnover via the booking office was considerable in the first year and the number of self-organized hikers is still clearly higher according to the estimation of the accommodation providers. Fortunately, the average length of stay on the trail is one week, which is longer than expected.
National Parks and Tourism is the title of a statement of National Parks Austria in which it is explained how the national parks imagine a cooperation with the tourism industry for mutual benefit (tourism and nature conservation). The Luchs Trail project meets this requirements in all points. The cooperation between the tourism boards and the protected areas has improved, has been extended and is awaiting further joint projects to come.
The sales rights have been assigned to a single travel agency, Trail Angels is the sole travel agency partner of the ARGE and acts as “retailer and wholesaler” in the form of a central Booking Center. The reason for this is their convincing concept, the convenient booking tool on the WWW and last but not least – the personal relationship of trust that was established during the project planning phase.
Left: Renowned specialist Tour Operators such as Weltweitwandern have also already included the Luchs Trail in their portfolios and make use of the services of the Luchs Trail Booking Center ©Weltweitwandern
Left: The Official Luchs Trail Info & Booking Center, operated by the Trail Angels, contributes to the creation of value for small businesses in the peripheral regions ©Trail Angels
in harmony with nature
What is our vision for the Luchs Trail?
Let’s look into the year 2030!
Hiking on the Luchs Trail conveys a – in its silence – great nature experience. The hikers are – like today – alone on the trail over long distances and enjoy the wilderness undiminished. At the stages they meet and exchange their experiences. Like the shell on the Way of St. James, they recognize each other by a drinking vessel, the Luchs Trail mug. They are among themselves, a Luchs Trail community. Usually the goal is to complete all stages during one or at max two trips. Especially beautiful stages and sometimes rainy weather on parts of the trail invite you to come back.
The business (restaurant, accommodation)
Without the Luchs Trail hikers, summer is no longer imaginable. Some guests spend a week’s vacation in their favorite stage later on. The farms have thematically adapted to the clientele, visibly in decoration and information about lynx, wilderness and ecological networking.
Trail Angels, the exclusive travel agency
The cooperation with the companies is going well, new companies want to cooperate and make allotments available. The trail is a constant factor in the Trail Angels product portfolio. There is a local representative office or franchise partner in the region to have personal contact with the guests and to be able to react quickly to special requests.
The tourism boards
The Luchs Trail ensures the survival of some peripheral businesses. Above all, the trail has contributed to making the region known as the pinnacle of gentle tourism.The trail addresses rather higher educated people, for whom the price does not play a higher role. Also the audience has become younger, which was very necessary in consideration of our aging regular guests.
The hikers on the Luchs Trail have become some of our favorite visitors. They come and go by foot, do not need any motorized means of transport, not even a bus. They are attentive, respectful of nature and grateful for our work in nature conservation. Back home they become advocates of the parks.
Most importantly at the end:
The lynx population has stabilized in the meantime, there are enough youngsters, new territories in the area are built and there is an exchange with other populations. The public presence of the lynx issue has prompted politicians to make artificial barriers (highways, etc) passable with green bridges. Poaching has now become a NO-GO and is no longer welcome at the regulars’ table either. Together with hunters, lynxes have been released into the wild in Styria and Upper Austria to replenish their bloodlines.
„The success of the Luchs Trail has surprised even us Trail Angels. The Luchs Trail has proven how much you can change the direction with team spirit, passion, innovation and yet a manageable investment of funds. We are convinced: The Luchs Trail will soon become one of the brightest stars for the partnership of nature conservation and tourism and for responsible tourism in peripheral rural regions.“
This article was written by: Herbert Wölger
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