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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Tourists' heavy Alpine toll
Matterhorn AP
About one in ten of the world's tourists heads for the Alps
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

If the British did not actually invent Alpine tourism, we were certainly among the first foreigners to regard mountains as there to be climbed.

It was a view most local people found incomprehensible a century and more ago.

Now, though, it is very different. Without tourism, even more young people would leave the mountains for the cities. But reconciling visitors, locals and Nature is becoming almost impossibly difficult.

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development reported in 1999 that tourism was the world's leading industry, with the turnover from the international side of the business worth $444bn annually.

Massive footprint

The Alpine share of global tourism is reckoned to be about 10%, or 120 million visitors a year.

Inevitably, the Alps' invaders have a massive impact:

  • They travel along 500,000 km of roads, in nearly 50 million vehicles.
  • They use 3 million mountain bikes.
  • Only about one in every six of them travels by train in the region.
  • They sleep in 5 million beds.
  • 1.5 million skiers an hour use the ski lifts at the height of the winter season.
  • The growth of off-piste skiing, bungee jumping and other extreme sports has prompted fears that the Alps could soon be little more than a huge adventure playground.
  • About 10% of the Alpine region is in protected areas, but people are completely excluded from less than 1%.
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan heads the Bellerive Foundation, based in Geneva, and works to protect the Alps from the various threats they face.

Cable car BBC
Tourism's demands are sometimes heavy
He says the Alps are "probably the world's most saturated tourist region, as well as being perhaps the most fragile ecosystem".

"Despite all the commandments and entreaties in every tourist office and along every path," he writes, "there is still too much litter, too many fires, as well as wanton destruction of rare fauna and flora and desecration of the cultural heritage."

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says: "Mountain parks have been identified as especially at risk from the environmental destruction caused by climate change.

Changes found

"As the climate warms, species that live in the higher Alpine zones are forced to move higher on the mountain to find suitable habitat, and this can drastically reduce the living area available to them," warns the organisation.

Cross-country skier BBC
Off-piste skiing can bring problems
"Scientists have already recorded changes in Alpine vegetation as a result of global warming; if the rate of climatic change continues to accelerate, then the extinction of some mountain plants and animals is certain," it adds.

The WWF identifies the Swiss national park, the Majella national park in Italy, Hohe Tauern and Nockberge national narks in Austria, and Berchtesgarten national park in Germany as Euopes's most vulnerable areas.

Direct threat

But for the people who live year-round in the mountains, attempts to limit tourism are a direct threat to their livelihoods.

There are already signs that some of the cheaper package ski tours are opting for North America, where the season is longer than in the Alps.

Thoughtful tourists aim to "take away nothing but memories, and leave behind nothing but footprints".

Ideally, that is the way forward for the Alps. Practically, it remains an elusive goal.

See also:

04 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Trailing English eccentrics in Switzerland
05 Sep 01 | Sci/Tech
Tourist threat to Arctic
23 Jun 01 | Europe
Pope condemns mass tourism
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