Zell am See: why are GCC Arabs flocking to the Salzburg hotspot?

Move over Geneva, Gulf residents have a new lakeside destination to cool off - and they're visiting in their thousands.

August 19, 2015

With summer temperatures rising as high as 50˚C in the Gulf, many Arab families see this as an ideal opportunity to head for cooler climes.

While London is a perennially popular summer getaway, in recent years a far less obvious destination has found favour with Middle Eastern travellers: the sleepy Alpine town of Zell am See in Salzburg, Austria.

With lush fields and forests providing an abundance of greenery and picturesque snow-capped mountains reflecting in the crystal clear waters of a calm lake, the idyllic town - as well as nearby Kaprun - provides the perfect antidote to the blistering heat of the Gulf.

That's why Zell am See - and its now famous Grand Hotel Zell Am See - located in the Austrian state of Salzburg with a local population of fewer than 10,000, has seen a huge influx in the number of Arab visitors in the past decade, now welcoming around 70,000 tourists from the GCC every summer.

Zell am See Austria Grand Hotel.jpg The garden of the Grand Hotel Zell Am See. Most of the Arab tourists stay at this hotel which is located directly next to the lake.

Apart from the massive financial boost for the region, many of the GCC's tourists also like to mix with the locals, turning the town into a fascinating melting pot of crossed cultures - one which photographer Marieke van der Velden couldn't help but notice on her recent visit there.

In fact, she was so taken with the unusual sight of the desert-dwelling guests reveling in such unfamiliar Alpine surroundings that she teamed up with journalist Saskia Adriaens to document a typical summer in Zell am See.

Named 'Das Paradies' - referring to the town's Muslim-centric tourism marketing slogan, "Paradise as the Quran intended" - the photographer's series of images, accompanied by Adriaens' captions, gives us a glimpse of exactly why Arab tourists are heading in their thousands to the sleepy Salzburg towns of Kaprun and Zell am See.

Zell am See Austria boating.jpg Boating on the Zell am See lake is popular.
Zell am See Austria Fouzia.jpg Fouzia (financial accountant) from Oman is here on holiday with her husband Hatam and they have been together for eight years. While other tourists are enjoying a beer or having some ice cream, they are drinking hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.
Zell am See Austria.jpg The 21-year-old Maryan comes from Dubai. “We have camels instead of sleighs,” she says laughing. She is here along with her brother and his family.
Zell am See Austria selfie stick.jpg Ahmad and Mona, both twenty and both lawyers, come from Kuwait. They are on their honeymoon and are having the time of their lives. “This place is very famous! Everyone wants to come here!” They say that sometimes they have the feeling that they are in Kuwait because there are so many Iraqis here.
Zell am See Austria forest path.jpg A walking path into the forest, which leads the people to a beautiful waterfall.
Zell am See Austria cable car.jpg A family on their way to the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Kirzsteinhorn glacier.
Zell am See Austria Dubai family.jpg Khaled (policeman) and his wife Mariam (housewife) come from Dubai and along with their four children Sumayah, Hamda, Abaid and Rashed have come for a ten-day holiday in Zell am See and following that a four-day holiday in Vienna. “The children keep crying that their hands are cold,” Mariam says laughing.
Zell am See Austria henna.jpg Mariam is not bothered by the cold and proudly shows her arms which have been decorated with henna.
Zell am See Austria Kuwaiti family.jpg Mai from Kuwait is happy with her warm headscarf, she says. She is a teacher at a day-care centre and he is studying for his Masters in Islamic History. Together they are on a three-week trip. “People here are very nice.”
Zell am See Austria Saudi yodelling.jpg The 26-year-old Turki and his 22-year-old wife Riha (pregnant with their second child) come from Saudi Arabia and are celebrating their fourth anniversary on this holiday. This is their first time going on holiday together. Turki: “This is the best place I have ever been!” He had heard from his friends that he should come to Zell am See, but it far exceeds his expectations. One hour later Urki wins the second prize in the yodelling contest.
Zell am See Austria Saudis with locals.jpg Ali and Samira from Saudi-Arabia are having their picture taken with some of the local residents during the traditional feast ‘Zell Edelweisen’. He is a mathematics teacher and she is a geography teacher. At first they thought that this was a wedding party, but when they got closer they could see that there were also tourists. ‘We love it here because it’s so nice and cool and there is no traffic in the city centre.” Later on they will he headed for London to go shopping.
Zell am See Austria waterfall.jpg By the waterfall Maryam from Oman poses for the picture. She is here with her husband Saleh for a week’s holiday before they head to Salzburg. “Everyone talks about this place. For us, it is paradise.”
Zell am See Austria forest.jpg A couple walks slowly through the forest, while taking a lot of photographs.
Zell am See Austria Zell Edelweisen festival.jpg At the weekly traditional feast “Zell Edelweisen” in the park by the lake local residents come together to dance and show their traditional costumes to the tourists. There is also a yodelling and wood chopping contest.

Images: Marieke van der Velden. Captions: Saskia Adriaens.