Many of Europe’s alpine regions are slowly emerging from their longer than usual pause between tourist seasons into a new reality, one where domestic guests and those from neighbouring continental countries will make up the bulk of visitor numbers. It is not though from where tourists arrive and to what extent an increase in staycationers will pick up the slack from an otherwise absent foreign market that will point to a new future in the Alps, but how its resorts and municipalities adapt to a ‘nature first’ approach, stripping their offering back to basics which reconnects with the real reasons people for centuries have ventured to the mountains.

Vistas now so often dominated by cableways, pylons, and storage ponds from which water is drawn for producing artificial snow have come to dominate many of Europe’s alpine settings, arguably to fuel the demands and expectations of the customers on whom theses regions have come to rely. Those who benefit the most from mountainsides being carved up for the newest cable cars and piste do not get to see the reality left behind once the last snows have melted. Driven by the insatiable winter sports scene, the upgrading of existing lifts is the most acceptable, or least unacceptable face of alpine development, but a sector with seemingly as much money as it wishes nevertheless cannot rest until it has secured yet more, which then in turn is deemed to be insufficient.

The warmer months lay bare man’s disregard for mountainscapes often pockmarked by countless ‘winter only’ lifts, seemingly abandoned umbrella bars and associated seasonal detritus to be picked up where it left off once the first snows, artificial or the real thing, start to fall. Am I simply being bitter because the majority of lifts in some areas are not in operation during my visits in the summer months? No. I am disturbed by the amount of upheaval wrought upon a fragile environment in the name of a relentless obsession with money, and the aesthetic abomination associated with such intensive developments that operate for just a few months of the year.

Do I use the lifts that operate in the summer, and therefore benefit from getting to the starting points of my treks far quicker than hiking up to them? Yes on both counts. I am therefore aware of the hypocrisy of my argument, but would counter that an absence of a saturation point in many of Austria’s resorts and valleys has failed to draw a line on what is acceptable, assuming of course a clear definition on what that actually is could be agreed upon. Unlikely.

In planning parlance the ‘unlocking’ of land usually involves a dramatic and often controversial action to access terrain otherwise out of reach for development. For example, a new road across fields brings in to play the land it bisects between it and existing development, in effect creating an infill plot ripe for housing development. In a similar way agricultural land landlocked behind ribbon development that lack a means of suitable egress is often unlocked for housing by simply demolishing an existing property that backs on to the area in question, usually only after sweetening the pill for the householder by paying over the odds for their property. In the Alps, this approach is used to link up adjoining valleys for supposed mutual benefit but often results in the loss of tree cover and in rare cases, includes the bulldozing of mountain summits to ‘realign’ the landscape with the project’s parameters. Again, this is all brought into being for the sake of the winter sports industry and a refusal to take the intensity out of tourism so heavily biased towards the wintertime to instead be replaced by a more sustainable, all year-round model.

It is not though the winter sports themselves and participation in them that damages the environment, but the systems put in place to facilitate it. Modest but functional cableways enable skiers to get from a to b and sashay down pistes of varying difficulty that have not been blasted through rock and tree cover have a negligible effect on the ecological balance, assuming that the snow is the real thing, and not that produced using incredible amounts of water, a finite resource as Climate Change shows its hand ever more so.

Where there is otherwise an absence of a line as to where the saturation point for development in the Alps should be drawn, surely when resorts rely more on artificial snow than a realistic chance of its natural counterpart accumulating in sufficient quantities, that is the time to accept that winter sports can no longer be the ‘go to’ cash cow that it once was. By diversifying an approach that evens out the tourism season into a 365-day economy and removes the reliance on a damaging and exhausting intensity redolent of increasingly unpredictable winter seasons, the Alps can look to its natural attributes for inspiration and consistent revenue streams throughout the year which are not predicated upon artificially altering the landscape and the irony of making up for meteorological shortfalls by wasting millions of gallons of water.

The many lurid stories emanating from the likes of Ischgl, Soelden and the Zillertal and Arlberg regions paint grim pictures of bar owners and apres ski operators allegedly turning a blind eye to the first knockings of Covid-19, for the fear of losing lucrative business associated with cramming as many people in as possible, often drunk, into small settings that in their more cliched, prosaic form pump out eurodance and 70’s disco classics. As some resorts seek to push the envelope further to gain an edge over local, regional, and cross border rivals, an inevitable drop in standards has ensued, making some villages and their bars more synonymous with Amsterdam or Ibiza, or maybe a combination of the two. If, and it’s a big if, there are times and places for such libidinous and bibulous behaviour, surely it is not within villages formerly rooted in farming and a solemn observance of church and family values? This is though in a wider sense what has happened on many mountainsides which have long betrayed a lack of restraint as more and more developments skip hand in hand with a drop in standards and a lack of restraint.

The summer season of 2020 will bring about an enforced pause in what has long been the established norm in alpine Europe. More tourists will arrive from neighbouring countries and those within their own borders will reacquaint themselves with or get to know their own nation. For many alpine resorts the warmer months represent the icing on the cake with which it can often live without, with some hoteliers instead earning money in such significant amounts that opening up in the summer is as economically unnecessary as it is an impediment to recovering from working 20-hour days during the winter. Such a live fast and chase the money approach is bad for the self as it is the fragile environment off who’s back those have become rich, but persuading the tourism sector even with the significant input of Covid-19 to rebalance from what at times has become a tawdry, cynical, and amoral dash for cash to a more holistic, considered, and sustainable approach will be resisted by some, including many highly influential members of the winter sports sector.

Where once relatively impoverished ‘cow villages’ relied upon the soil, the seasons, and their inhabitants’ faith the shift to exploiting the landscape for more lucrative opportunities has long been established, but has resulted in the selling of souls to the devil in such a manner that the former defining identities of settlements are now often couched in little more than parodic nods to farming, and simpler ways of living viewed pejoratively. Where once there was poverty there is now affluence but with money comes power, and responsibility. If the winter sports sector will not police itself, who will stand up to it? Can enough meaning enough represent the same thing throughout the Alps, or just in areas that hitherto had the money to in effect do as they please? It is clear that the answers for some to these questions will not be the same for others.

Source material and further information:

ORF(Tirol): https://tirol.orf.at/stories/3052278/

Kronen Zeitung(Tirol): https://www.krone.at/2168927