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Solstice in winter tourism

© julochka / flickr

Tourism has brought wealth to the Alps. In many regions it remains an important source of income, but lack of economic diversification is also a risk. The importance and orientation of tourism differs strongly among Alpine countries, but all of them need new strategies and approaches to cope with shifts in visitor behaviour and climate change. A socio-economic transformation is needed that takes account of tourism’s past, present and future potential.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, CIPRA, sees the present position paper as a constructive contribution towards the promotion of change in tourism destinations. There are no standard recipes for sustainable winter tourism. Therefore, the following postulations should be seen as food for thought. CIPRA is convinced that, through the implementation of intelligent concepts, tourism will connect different aspects of life as well as the diverse interests of local populations and tourists in the Alps, contributing towards enhancing the quality of life for all. Because, in the end, this is what it is all about: a good life in the Alps – both in summer and in winter.

Starting positions and trends

The number of overnight stays in the Alps has been declining for years, even at previously successful winter sport destinations. In all Alpine countries the number of first visits to skiing areas, the so-called skier days, has shown a downward trend over the past five years, just as the length of visits. One-third to one-fourth of the ski resorts shows a deficit. Visitors have high standards: they do not just want to ski but also go snowshoeing, visit concerts, relax in spas or attend meditation courses, enjoy regional specialities or experience local traditions. Young people in particular only participate in winter sports occasionally, if at all.

Global competition for investments is increasing. Many in the Alpine tourism industry strive for ‘bigger and faster’. They focus on distant markets and tempt guests from faraway with spectacular events, frequently just one-offs. The cost of marketing, infrastructure and entertainment are increasing.
Climate change makes these challenges more acute. Throughout the year there is already more rain than snowfall below 1,000 metres, the ski season is increasingly becoming shorter. Artificial snow is only a stopgap: with the conventional, permitted methods, it requires three to five consecutive days of temperatures below 0°C - which happens less and less frequently. According to forecasts, only areas above 1,800 metres will be able to rely on ski tourism by 2050. What will the other areas do?

Some of the measures taken to address these challenges actually accelerate climate change, as when visitors are attracted from afar and travel by airplane. Some have serious consequences for the environment and the well-being of the population. Covering a slope with artificial snow, for example, leads to an exponential increase in water and energy use. The drinking water quality in the ski resort is affected by contaminated water from reservoirs, water pumped from elsewhere and snow additives used in preparation for ski events. Soil erosion and landslides increasingly affect the landscape and the safety and health of the inhabitants. Noise and particulate emissions caused by tourist traffic not only reduce the quality of life at the destinations but also in the regions along the route.

The image of snow-covered mountains and pristine landscapes the tourism industry transmits to its customers is less and less connected to reality. But for many tourism destinations and operators questioning Alpine skiing amounts to sacrilege. In spite of the uncertain prospects they stick to the expansion of ski infrastructure. The cry for public funding of marketing activities and infrastructure becomes louder; the risk is transferred to society.

The postulations

  1. Sustainable tourism respects the limits of available resources and stimulates innovative approaches!
  2. No development of glaciers and unspoiled landscapes!
  3. Dismantle decommissioned infrastructure and scale back areas designated as residential zones!
  4. Create and promote environmentally friendly mobility!
  5. Support for tourism requires holistic regional strategies!
  6. Learn from pioneers!

More details can be found in the PDF: