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The Alps and demography

Many valleys in the Alps are becoming depopulated while others are showing remarkable demographic growth.

Analysis of the Alpine population from 1871 to 2000 highlights stark differences in regional development.

From depopulation to demographic boom

In 1870, the four Ticino communes in Val Rovana, a side valley off the Valle Maggia, had a total of 1,411 inhabitants.

In 2000, just 219 individuals were still living at Bosco Gurin, Campo, Cerentino and Linescio. Over 130 years, the valley lost almost 85% of its population.

Depopulation was constant during the period examined. Only in the last ten years has the population in some communes increased slightly.

At the opposite extreme of Alpine demographic development is St Moritz, in canton Graubünden. In 1870, the celebrated tourist resort had 400 inhabitants; by 2000, there were 5,589.

The resident population of St Moritz increased very rapidly during the first tourist boom, from 1880 to 1910 (from 394 to 3,197 inhabitants), and again from 1960 to 1980.

St Moritz was still a village in the very early stages of tourist development in 1870, when Thun in canton Bern was already a town of 7,290 inhabitants.

Although it did not experience the sharp increases in population that St Moritz encountered, Thun grew steadily to reach its present-day figure of 40,377 inhabitants.

Complex demographic landscape

As emerges from these three examples, demographic development in the Alps presents remarkable divergences.

High growth rate areas alternate with regions whose demographic balance is markedly negative. In the Alps, as elsewhere, people and services tend to concentrate in urban areas.

Yet the situation is dynamic and subject to variation over time, as is demonstrated in a recent study by Werner Bätzing and Yven Dickhörner on the population of Alpine communes from 1871 to 2000.

The study was commissioned by the German Ministry of the Environment and published in Werner Bätzing’s book, “Die Alpen”.

In Switzerland in particular, the demographic landscape is very uneven. Bätzing and Dickhörner identified 17 different models for demographic development, classified according to the trend over time of the growth or decrease in population. All 17 models are present in Switzerland.

Industry impact

Between 1871 and 1951, a period characterised by the advent of industrial society, the population of the Alps grew by 37 per cent.

This is much lower than the average growth of 51 per cent recorded overall in the eight Alpine countries (France, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Slovenia). The Alpine region was thus clearly faced with problems in this period.

However, closer analysis shows that although half of the Alpine communes underwent a sharp drop in population (-36 per cent, the other half experienced very high rates of growth (+81 per cent).

Depopulation particularly affected the south-west regions of the Alpine Arc (French and Italian Alps, canton Ticino), where traditional economic activities were not replaced by new productive enterprises.

In contrast, the population grew in the towns, in major valleys with good access routes, and in side valleys where tourism replaced traditional activities.

This development was particularly significant in Bavaria, Vorarlberg, Liechtenstein, Tyrol, Salzburg, Carinthia and the South Tyrol, as well as in some parts of the Swiss Alps.

Industrial to service society

From 1951 to 1981, population growth in the Alps was close to the average for the Alpine countries as a whole, but in almost half of the communes (47 per cent), the decline in birth rates continued.

In the economic boom period of the 1950s, Alpine areas became increasingly integrated into the European economy.

The division of Europe into two blocs encouraged trade along the north-south axis, to the detriment of the traditional east-west route.

In the 1980s and 1990s, population growth in the Alpine region was markedly above the average for Europe.

Growth was sustained principally by Alpine towns and cities on the edges of the Alps while 27 per cent of communes continued to suffer depopulation.

Eighteen per cent of residents in the Alps engage in some form of commuting between their homes and a place of work outside the Alpine area.

However, tourism itself entered a phase of stagnation after 1985. Population growth in small and medium-size tourist resorts was static or even negative, whereas larger centres of population acquired the dimensions and functions of towns.

swissinfo, Andrea Tognina

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR