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Tourists to get high on fresh air

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The creation of a new label could be a breath of fresh air for Swiss alpine resorts and their guests.

This content was published on December 23, 2004 - 15:17

More than a marketing ploy, the “pure air” claim will be backed by the findings of scientific studies proving the health benefits of high altitude holidays.

“Resorts are rediscovering fresh mountain air and its corresponding health benefits as an asset that can be marketed,” says researcher Rafael Matos.

The air is more than fresh in Crans Montana, it’s so cold and damp that I can literally see the words forming in front of Matos as we walk through the mountain resort.

Matos has been working on a three-year project run out of the University of Lausanne investigating the “scientific and cultural history of air as a component of alpine landscapes”.

Despite the rather scholarly title, the results could have practical applications for alpine resorts.

Matos, who is the team member responsible for contemporary issues, says the eventual creation of a “pure air” label could be assigned to places like Crans Montana.

Turning back the clock

If this happens, resorts will be turning back the clock since the health benefits of high altitude holidays were first recognised in the 19th century, when people from across Europe afflicted with respiratory diseases, including tuberculosis, flocked to the Alps.

That was before the discovery of antibiotics, and an outbreak of a winter sports madness that transformed many alpine villages into ski resorts.

It also made the villages lose sight of their 19th century beginnings.

Austria was the first to rediscover the potential a few years ago when the university of Innsbruck published a study comparing the benefits of vacations in the mountains to holidaying at lower altitudes.

It found that people who holidayed at moderate altitudes (1,500-2,000m) had lower blood pressure and pulse rates, lost weight and slept better.

Key factor

Following up on the study, Matos’s group surveyed 1,000 tourists across the Alps who said the unpolluted mountain air was a key factor in choosing their destination – second only to the scenic beauty.

Some mountain resorts have been using this natural resource as a selling point, but not as aggressively as they could.

Matos says the chance of breathing rarefied air is even more important for the increasing numbers of Chinese, Russian and Indian tourists who are coming to the Swiss Alps to escape their smog-choked cities.

But he says a “pure air” label, if created, would come at a cost and Crans Montana, for example, would not qualify if the label existed today.

Traffic plague

While the air quality on its ski slopes and hiking trails is rated among the best in the Swiss Alps, the resort centre is plagued by motorised traffic.

Matos says the authorities have to do more to reduce traffic congestion, especially over the Christmas period and in February – the height of the ski season - when the resort population increases tenfold.

“We can see it, hear it and even smell it,” Matos says, speaking over the roar of cars.

“The majority of our guests still come by car because it’s very accessible that way,” admits director of tourism, Walter Loser.

Loser lays part of the blame on the mentality of Crans Montana’s mostly French- and Italian-speaking guests who want the fresh air as much as anybody else, but refuse to give up the convenience of their cars when on holiday.

New road

But Loser says Crans Montana has chosen to go down a different road.

As part of a government-funded pilot project to promote health and a healthy environment, the resort is implementing new measures to convince visitors to use the excellent public transport system.

It is turning parts of the centre into a pedestrian zone and is drastically reducing speed limits.

In the poll position for the “pure air” label, according to Matos, are Switzerland’s nine car-free resorts including Zermatt, Saas Fee and Mürren.

But he says that even they have to do more to get visitors to take the train instead of driving to one of the giant car parks on the edge of the villages, where cars can be parked.

If it is introduced, a “pure air” label could win back tourists who have over the past couple of decades forsaken the Alps for relaxing beach holidays.

That would at the very least be good for the health of the Swiss tourist industry.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Crans Montana

Key facts

The “Breathing Fresh Air” project is a Swiss National Research programme.
The fresh air survey conducted in the following alpine resorts: Leysin, Crans Montana, Davos, Passy (France), Sondalo (Italy).

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