Wonderful views, long mountain slopes, solitary peaks, and snow-covered tranquility make Europe’s Alpine region a popular destination for many travelers in both summer and winter. However, the Alps are now infamous for traffic jams, overcrowded villages, and pleasure seekers who obstruct hiking trails and skiing slopes. What used to be idyllic Alpine villages in pristine landscapes have been transformed into ugly concrete fortresses of mass accommodation. Moreover, the effects of climate change are compounding the woes of the Alps. Steffen Reich states, “It can be observed that warming in the Alpine region is progressing significantly faster than the global average.”
Tourism is the main breadwinner for Alpine populations, and it is unlikely that the annual influx of holidaymakers can be scaled back. On the contrary, Reich expects the region to become even more popular with tourists due to climate change because the mountainous region will be cooler than lower-lying areas. Ski resorts are especially hard hit by climate change and need to adapt the most. Less snowfall and higher temperatures are already taking their toll, substantially raising the bills for local communities to make up for the lack of natural snow with technical means. Even so, Alpine temperatures are already rising above levels which renders snow cannons and other machines that produce artificial snow useless.
All of this will change the face of tourism in the Alps, which is still the region with the most winter resorts in the world. Henriette Adolf of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA) thinks in the future people will no longer be able to enjoy “a string of seven days of Alpine skiing,” but need to be flexible enough to engage in activities more in line with “the local conditions” at specific points in time. Adolf suggests that cross-country skiing, which requires less snow, could become an alternative to Alpine skiing, and thinks tourists will have to get used to doing without snow altogether much of the time. She called on local tourism authorities to prepare for year-round seasons that would require refitting skiing lifts, for example, to make them available for hikers too.
Despite hiking and mountaineering growing in popularity in the Alps, those activities are also becoming more dangerous. “Especially for high-altitude climbers, the consequences of global warming and the associated increased risks in (still) glaciated areas are dramatic,” the Austrian Alpine Club wrote in a newsletter to its members recently. The gradual thawing of permafrost soils at altitudes above 2,400 meters poses a significant problem. These permanently frozen grounds act effectively like glue, holding entire rock formations. Their thawing can cause dangerous mudslides, rockfalls, or entire mountains to collapse.
The climate-related upheavals in the Alpine landscapes are increasing the pressure on the operators of huts and shelters in the mountains to adapt. Some of those dwellings, which are often operated by the Alpine clubs, needed to have their foundations reinforced to withstand soil erosion. Furthermore, water is becoming scarcer in the summer. “Water is being saved, cisterns are being installed, toilets that do not require water are being built, or showers are being reduced,” said Reich. “I have also experienced situations where water was rationed, or only a limited amount of water could be taken for hiking,” Henriette Adolf said. “Still, some huts were forced to end their season early because they ran out of water.”
Apart from climate change, tourism in the Alps is having a massive problem with too many holiday-makers swarming the region every year. Local populations are feeling overwhelmed by the mass influx of tourists, many of them only coming to chase the latest must-visit site popular on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. The Italian region of South Tyrol has already restricted the number of holiday beds. Regional councilor Arnold Schuler told US broadcaster CNN in the spring of this year that the popular resort had “reached the limit of our resources” as traffic problems abounded and residents “have difficulty finding affordable housing.”
The German Alpine Club’s Steffen Reich believes that such drastic measures aren’t necessary everywhere. “You have to precisely understand what the real problem is. Is it the negative effects on local populations? Is it a threat to wildlife? Or is it primarily a park management problem?” Each problem would need its specific solution.