The South Tyrol Success Story: Italy's German-Speaking Province Escapes the Crisis

By Walter Mayr in Bolzano, Italy

The German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol has defied the economic crisis with almost full employment and a healthy economy. Its success is partly due to its paternalistic governor, Luis Durnwalder, who has ruled the province practically as his personal fiefdom since 1989. Resentment of Rome is growing in the region, which once belonged to Austria.

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Reinhold Messner was the first mountain climber to ascend all of the world's peaks taller than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) above sea level. But in his native South Tyrol, there are those who see him as nothing but a well-traveled denigrator of his own country.

Messner, with his trademark shaggy beard and thick, wavy hair, is sitting in the courtyard of Sigmundskron Castle in front of his Messner Mountain Museum in the city of Bolzano, sipping a glass of red wine. He is gushing about the merits of his native South Tyrol, an autonomous province of Italy that used to be part of Austria until the end of World War I and that is home to speakers of German, Italian and the local language Ladin. It's a far cry from the outbursts of rage for which he is known. "We are doing well here in South Tyrol," says Messner. "We are living in the promised land, and that's Durni's achievement."

The man Messner calls "Durni" is Luis Durnwalder, who has been president of South Tyrol since 1989. Many residents of the province, including both German- and Italian-speaking South Tyroleans, practically worship Durnwalder for his shrewdness and down-to-earth personality. But for Messner, who has made sarcastic remarks about Durnwalder in the past, the praise represents something of an about-face. "I wasn't in favor of Durnwalder at first, because I didn't want the province to be run by a farmer like that," says Messner. "But I was wrong about him."

Highly Successful

The numbers speak volumes about Durnwalder's achievements. No provincial governor in Italy has been in office longer -- or has been as successful. His province, a region of mountains and valleys stretching from the Brenner Pass to the Salurner Klause, rivals Italy's most productive regions, highly industrialized Lombardy and the Valle d'Aosta, in GDP per capita (see graphic).

The small province of South Tyrol, also referred to as Alto Adige, is little more than half the size of the US state of Connecticut and is a land of mountains, forests, apple orchards and vineyards. Nevertheless, it is so prosperous that it can pay its governor a better salary than that earned by US President Barack Obama.

As Durnwalder makes his way up the hill at Sigmundskron Castle, it's clear that he is aware of his market value. In fact, he is so busy greeting his fans that he almost overlooks the world-famous mountaineer Messner. The choice of Sigmundskron Castle as the site of their meeting is significant. Tens of thousands protested at Sigmundskron Castle in 1957, chanting "los von Trient" ("away from Trento"), setting the course for the province's autonomy.

The so-called "South Tyrol Package," signed in 1972, guarantees the governments of the two provinces of South Tyrol and Trentino, which together make up the autonomous region of Trentino/South Tyrol, extensive autonomy from Rome. "But it was only Durni who managed to transform autonomy into economic success," says Messner, who threatened to emigrate to Patagonia years ago because of the political monoculture in South Tyrol. "Today," says Durnwalder, "20 horses couldn't drag Messner away from this place."

Virtually Full Employment

In the difficult summer of 2010, South Tyrol is like a small beacon of prosperity surrounded by doom and gloom. Despite the economic crisis, there is almost no unemployment in the area surrounding the capital Bolzano (known in German as Bozen), and the province is debt-free. By comparison, Italy as a whole has the highest government debt, as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product, in the entire euro zone. Within the last half-century, 19 prime ministers have been sworn in in Rome. In South Tyrol, on the other hand, there has been only one change in the province's top job during the same period -- from its "über-father" Silvius Magnago to Durnwalder.

For the last 21 years, Durnwalder has made sure that his realm, a place where both lemon trees and edelweiss bloom, takes full advantage of its strengths. Investors exploit the bilingualism of many South Tyrolese to capture southern markets. Vacationers flock to the region, not only to tour the Dolomites and visit "Törggelen" festivals, which showcase local food and wine in the autumn, but also because of its new boutique hotels and museums. In 2009, South Tyrol registered 28 million overnight stays in its hotels and guesthouses.

Messner, with his five mountain museums scattered around South Tyrol, is part of the attraction. In this sense, he contributes indirectly to the success of Durnwalder's party, the South Tyrolean People's Party (SVP), which has ruled the province with an absolute or relative majority since 1948. But when it comes to the issues he cares about, like raising money for new projects or securing approval to place statues of Buddha in the ruins of a 1,000-year-old Tyrolean castle, the mountain-climbing legend doesn't even bother with ordinary party officials. "I only talk to the governor," says Messner.

'Enlightened Prince'

Many in South Tyrol feel the same way, including the petitioners who show up in front of the government headquarters building in Bolzano as early as 4 a.m. to be the first in line when Durnwalder starts his daily office hours for citizens at 6 a.m. -- an opportunity for ordinary people to tell him about their biggest problems. The governor's leadership style is reminiscent of that of an "enlightened prince," scoffs Arnold Tribus, publisher of the Neue Südtiroler Tageszeitung. Members of the government whisper that Durnwalder, the son of a mountain farmer in the Puster Valley, runs the province "like a big farm."

There is undoubtedly something of the stubborn old farmer in Durnwalder, who is finding it difficult to relinquish power. Although he announced that he would retire in 2013, after almost a quarter century in power, it is no longer clear whether he truly intends to do so.

Anyone who meets Durni, perhaps when he is visiting the Finailhof farm in the Schnals Valley, almost 2,000 meters (6,560 feet) above sea level, realizes that he is a man who has trouble letting go. It's obvious in the matter-of-fact way he distributes slices of roast lamb to the guests sitting around the dining table, as if he were in his own house, or in the way he proudly shows off his female companion, who calls him "Papi," and their one-year-old daughter. Durnwalder, who will soon turn 69, is clearly doing his best to show that he still has what it takes.

According to Durnwalder, polls show that more than two-thirds of citizens in the province have no idea who could replace him -- a conclusion that seems to surprise no one less than Durnwalder himself. He rattles off the names of Italian prime ministers, including Giulio Andreotti, Romano Prodi and current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and points out that he has always gotten along with whoever was in power in Rome. "Basically, the people down there are proud of us."

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