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The history of the Ötztal Valley

How a mountain farming area became a renowned tourist destination

Already some 9000 years ago, Stone Age hunters and gatherers ranged over the high Alpine regions of the Upper Ötztal. The area used to be a high-altitude grazing pasture. The first Rhaetian settlers, officially documented in historical papers, came from the Inntal Valley to the lower part of the Ötztal. As documents prove, around 550 the Germanic tribe of the Bavarii settled the valley from the north as they entered the Alpine region and the Danube area. Over the decades they mixed with the local Rhaetian people. The settlement of the Ötztal was first mentioned in official papers during the 12th century: Sölden appeared as "Seldon" already in 1150 and Oetz as "Etze" in 1166.

Among the most powerful landlords were the local Counts as well as the Earls of Schwangau (Füssen), the Counts of Starkenberg (Tarrenz), the Earls of Montalban (Meran) and the abbeys and monasteries of Frauenchiemsee and Stams. Countless farmhouses focusing on cattle breeding were ruled by the wealthy landlords. In the middle of the 14th century many of these farms closed and became pasture huts. Some of the ancient huts still exist today as high Alpine mountain farms serviced all year round, for example the Rofenhöfe Farmhouses near Vent. In 1320 the first mule trail up to the Timmelsjoch pass was built. Archduke Friedrich IV, also known as "Frederick of the Empty Pockets", hided from his enemies at the Rofenhof farmhouses in the winter of 1415.

Around 1800 the cultivation of potatoes was in its beginnings while flax from the Ötztal became more and more important thanks to its excellent quality – therefore it was also highly valued at the Hamburg stock exchange market. But the complex and strenuous flax processing work wasn't able to compete with the mechanized production sites in other countries. Around 1950 this important source of income dried up bit by bit.

In 1830 Obergurgl passed a resolution prohibiting further weddings and the foundation of families due to the barren soil and harsh climate so difficult to bring up children and feed a family. This regulation was abolished again in 1850. Despite of the blooming flax industry and the cattle breeding, many inhabitants of the Ötztal were forced to emigrate to America or to go to Germany or Switzerland as foreign workers. A huge number of children from poor mountain farms was sent to work on German farms as "Swabian children". After marching over the Alps, they were brought to the child markets in upper Swabia where local farmers purchased them as season workers.

The Ötztal Schützen Associations participated in all major wars between 1809, 1848, 1859 and 1866. In the course of all these battles they met Clemens Franz Xaver, the Count of Westphalia and at the same time also a pioneer in early tourism, who brought countless aristocratic families and friends to lovely Oetz at the end of the war. There they spent their first post-war summer holidays. In the middle of the 19th century the high Alpine regions became popular among alpinists and mountaineers. One of the leading figures was Franz Senn, the "Glacier Priest" and founding member of the highly acclaimed Tirolean mountain guide concept. Numerous mountain huts and shelters were newly built during this period. In 1903 the main road through the valley, leading from Ötztal Bahnhof to Sölden, was finished which was a real milestone in the history of tourism. Afterwards local innkeepers immediately began to print the first brochures and postcards in order to promote Ötztal's tourism around the globe. The renowned painter Albin Egger Lienz visited the valley for the first time in 1904, spending all his summer holidays in Längenfeld until 1923.

In 1911 several Ski Clubs were founded in Ötztal's holiday villages where also the first Alpine and Nordic skiing competitions took place. During the 1920's skiing sports became more and more important in the Ötztal. For example, the Hochsölden ski area was made accessible for winter tourism by Isidor Riml while the most famous ski mountaineering regions can be found in the environs of Obergurgl and Vent. Already in 1929, lake Piburger See and its scenic surroundings were declared a national Nature Preserve. Sölden registered no less than 88,000 bednights in 1930, 90% in summer. With the spectacular emergency landing of Auguste Piccard's (Swiss stratosphere expert) hot-air balloon on the Gurgl Glacier, tourism was also brought to Obergurgl.

In 1933 the number of tourists suddenly decreased when the German Reich introduced a deposit of thousand Reichsmark for every German who wanted to enter Austria. It was a real disaster for the prospering tourism sector in the Ötztal. In 1938 Austria was annexed to the German Reich, a fact that had eased the situation of the farmers and the unemployed in the valley – but only for a very short time: one year later, in 1939, many soldiers from the Ötztal died in World War II as members of the German troops.

In 1948 after World War II, the first chair lift leading from Sölden to Hochsölden was opened and the "Bergbahnen Sölden" lift company was founded. A T-bar ski lift was also built in Obergurgl in 1949, a very important step towards a modern winter sports center. In 1953 the Hohe Mut lift was inaugurated. In Oetz the Acherkogel mountain gondola was built in 1975, and Sölden saw the opening of the glacier ski area.

In the 1982 summer the very first edition of the Ötztaler Cycle Marathon was held, with only 154 participants. Today the number of cyclists reaches 4000. Only one year later Sölden's Tiefenbach Glacier was opened. The world press puts its focus on the Ötztal on 19 September 1991, when the mummified corpse of "Ötzi"- the Iceman was freed from the eternal ice. Since 1993 Sölden hosts the ultimate Alpine Ski World Cup Opening which, at the beginning, took place every two years – from the year 2000 onwards the races are held every year. In 1998 Sölden opened the "Golden Gate to the Glacier" ski lifts connecting Rettenbach Glacier with the Hochsölden Ski Area. Umhausen inaugurated the Ötzi Village in the year 2000. In 2001 Längenfeld saw the opening of the new polytechnic school. One year later, Längenfeld kicked-off the construction works for the Aqua Dome hotel and spa center opening its doors in 2004. In the same year Oetz opens the historical Tower Museum.

2006 was the year in which the former tourist boards of Haiming-Ochsengarten, Sautens, Oetz, Umhausen-Niederthai, Längenfeld, Sölden-Vent and Obergurgl/Hochgurgl merged to form ÖTZTAL TOURISMUS – a head office promoting the entire valley with joint marketing and advertising campaigns. In May 2010 the ultimate Area 47 was opened at the entrance to the Ötztal Valley. Tourism has become the valley's most important source of income and employment.