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Paying the price of tourism

Mass tourism...

(Keystone Archive)

About 100 million tourists visit the Alps yearly, bringing prosperity and employment to the region. But tourism has also brought harsh effects since its rapid development towards the end of the 19th century.

Although tourism has brought prosperity to many alpine regions, it has also brought harsh realities.

Boosted by relatively inexpensive rail travel, prosperity and peace in Europe towards the end of the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1960s that the growth became explosive.

By the 1970s, traffic had dirtied the once-pure mountain air, ski slopes intruded on the fragile habitat of rare alpine plants and animals, and villages found it hard to cope with the sudden requirements - from traffic controls to waste disposal - of a two- or three-fold increase in population because of the tourists.

It led a Swiss government minister to compare mass tourism to a Trojan horse, saying it could potentially destroy a people's social and cultural inheritance.

More chalets, ski lifts

As the European road network expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, more tourists were drawn to the mountains. Authorities in alpine villages, and property speculators turned once-idyllic farming villages into resorts dominated by hotels, holiday chalets and apartment projects.

Farmers sold out to property barons, and in some cases, the speculators found loopholes in zoning laws to build on steep slopes where no one had previously dared.

The development soiled the air, and overloaded the villages' infrastructure. Through the 1980s, the resorts built more cable cars and ski lifts. When the spiral ended, about 15,000 cable car stations dotted the Alps, giving skiers access to some 40,000 groomed slopes covering more than 120,000 kilometres.

Winter tourism peaked in the early 1990s. It coincided with less snowfall, forcing the tourist industry to come up with new ways of ensuring a return on their huge investments.

A debate broke out across Switzerland over the environmental impact of using artificial snow. Some resorts took the locally popular stand of refusing to install snowmaking machinery, but as the decade wore on and snow became a rare commodity, most gave in.

New cable car lines were built to reach the snow on higher slopes. In a famous case three years ago, the Swiss government turned down a bid by a business lobby in Grindelwald to build a cable car up to 3,700 metres above sea level.

The government rejected the bid saying the new infrastructure would infringe on a natural area deemed of national importance, and it also reminded the project's backers that the market was already "saturated". The Grindelwald businessmen responded with the threat that the government's decision would kill tourism in one of the country's biggest resorts.

Heli-skiing

But it was to be one of the few battles won by environmentalists. They have had less success fighting against the rising popularity of heli-skiing. Although banned in France and Germany, in more than 40 high spots in the Swiss Alps, helicopters are allowed to drop skiers.

Mountaineers complain that more than half of the landing sites are located within or on the border of protected areas. They say helicopters disturb wildlife and infringe on the few areas unspoilt by cable cars.

The mountaineers themselves are hardly free of sin. A recent study found that most people seeking a back-to-nature experience find it by driving their cars as far as they can into the mountains. The Swiss Alpine Club has started a campaign to convince more people to use the country's extensive public transportation network.

And in France, some analysts say the sheer number of mountain climbers converging on Chamonix each year has gotten out of hand. About 3,000 climbers a day in summer set off from the resort for an intimate alpine experience at an altitude of at least 3,500 metres. At lower altitudes, the figure climbs to about 10,000 climbers. In 1997 in Chamonix alone, more than 800 rescue operations had to be carried out, 75 climbers died, and nearly 800 were injured.

"Yodel architecture"

A different debate was taking place in Austria. Local parliaments bemoaned the fact that foreign tourists, mostly Germans, were "colonising" the country, and there were calls for a cap on visitors if the numbers doubled a resort's population.

The anti-tourism movement said village culture had become nothing more than a museum object, family structures had been destroyed and alcoholism had risen.

Most Austrian multi-storeyed hotels, as in Switzerland, have been built to look like traditional chalets. The style has been sarcastically dubbed "Yodel architecture".

But there was somber cause for reflection last year when a fire in a mountain railway tunnel in the Austrian resort of Kaprun killed more than 150 people.

The well-known mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, a member of the European parliament, called for greater controls to be placed on mass tourism in the Alps. He said the ability to climb several kilometres in altitude in a few minutes removed any sense of tranquillity or danger, ever present in the mountains.

Mountain bonfires

Each year in August for the past 15 years, environmentalists have lit bonfires on mountaintops across the Alps to remind the world of the destruction being done to the alpine environment.

Despite the increasing evidence of damage, the environmentalists' appeal has gone largely unnoticed. The bid to bring the Winter Olympics to Graubünden in 2010 has been criticised for its proposal to expand or improve existing infrastructure by intruding on forests and intact moors. The bid also foresees a significant increase in parking lots near Olympic sites.

The World Wide Fund for Nature and Pro Natura refuse to support the Olympics bid, arguing that Graubünden, the leading tourist region in Switzerland, doesn't need to attract more tourists, but to promote sustainable tourism and a better balance between the winter and summer seasons.

Many resorts across Switzerland are already attempting to improve the seasonal balance.


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