Tourism in the Alps: securing a greener future

Tourism in the Alps faces a stark future: adapt to our changing climate or become unsustainable. So says CIPRA, the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, in its newly released report on tourism and climate change

The heavy dependence on winter sports in the region, especially downhill skiing, means particular challenges have to be faced as climate change progresses. A temperature rise of just 1°C will mean that only 75% of existing ski fields will have enough snow to operate; a 4°C rise will reduce the number to just 30%. According to a report released last year by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the Alps have experienced an “exceptionally high temperature increase” of around 2°C since the late 19th century. This is more than twice the rate of average warming in the northern hemisphere, and has caused glaciers to melt and snowlines to climb. Statistics from the EEA show that Alpine glaciers have lost 20% to 30% of their remaining ice, and by the end of the century the snowline is expected to rise a staggering 650m.

But, says CIPRA, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the impact of climate change and ensure the continuation of a healthy, sustainable tourism industry in the Alps.

Most important is the need to reduce carbon emissions, three-quarters of which are linked to the transport that tourists use to arrive at their destination – especially flights and cars. However, over 20% of emissions in the region can also be attributed to tourist accommodation, so there is room for improvement at all levels.

Key steps

CIPRA suggests a number of steps that tourist facilities, such as hotels and local communities, can take to build a sustainable future for tourism in the Alps.

First is the development of environmentally friendly transport options. This could include developing economical travel packages with rail operators, so that guests arrive by train, or organising buses or vans to pick up groups of guests from the airport or railway station rather than have them travel individually. It also recommends organising activities local to the hotel or resort so guests are encouraged not to use their cars during their stay.

Tourist facilities also need to become more energy efficient, using low-energy lighting and installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels, hydropower, or wind, biomass and geothermic energy. In addition, heating and lighting should be turned down, or turned off, in buildings left empty during the low season to avoid energy wastage. This not only benefits the environment but can also bring financial benefits. Terme Snovik, a thermal spa in the Slovenian Alps, realised savings when it turned to biomass heating and solar energy and constructed a biological treatment plant. By using renewable energy resources, it was able to reduce heating costs by 28% despite a 36% increase in business volume.

Diversifying the tourism package

CIPRA also recommends developing activities that take advantage of the local environment and local culture year-round. While not all tourists in the region are skiers, many communities focus almost solely on promoting holidays on the slopes. Other activities, such as hiking and biking, local traditions and festivals and, in winter, cross-country skiing can help to develop tourism that respects the environment.

As snowlines rise, so too does the production of artificial snow. However, the amount of water and energy used, and the potential damage it inflicts on the environment, makes it unsustainable, CIPRA says. For example, the production of one square metre of artificial snow requires 200 to 500 litres of water, according to research cited in the report. To cover a one-hectare ski run with 30cm of artificial snow necessitates 600,000 to 1.5m litres of water – and that does not include the water needed for daily maintenance. It also uses 5,000 to 27,000kWh of electricity.

Another concern is the threat of damage to glaciers as ski fields move to higher elevations in the search for snow. CIPRA is therefore calling for a ban on the further development of glaciers and unspoiled natural environments as ski areas to protect them for the future.

“The main challenge will be to find new forms of winter tourism and new ways of using existing infrastructure that don’t depend on the snow,” says Anita Wyss from CIPRA.

Some communities are already turning their attention to spring, summer and autumn tourism. Others are slower to catch on. CIPRA is working with local municipalities to raise their awareness about the unsustainability of current practice and the need to diversify the tourism option.

Good hotel practice

One resort already doing this is the InterContinental Berchtesgaden. Situated in the Bavarian Alps, the resort was developed to attract tourists who want to relax and enjoy the surroundings. It is near a small ski hill but those who come to visit are encouraged to leave their cars parked in the garage and take part in a range of activities to discover the local environment and culture.

“This is a place where people come year-round,” comments general manager Claus Geißelmann. “It’s mostly about walking and cycling. People in Berchtesgaden are not interested in ski crowd-type tourism. They want to provide a more sustainable option.”

The InterContinental Berchtesgaden sources food wherever possible from Berchtesgaden and the local Alpine region. Spa products are also locally sourced, including salt products from Bad Reichenhall, which are used in the spa. In the hotel’s Inspiration/Concierge Lounge guests can mingle with staff to find out about the local area and activities available. “It’s an area where they can get inspired,” Geißelmann says.

But it is not just about walking and cycling. Guests are also encouraged to take part in activities that help to support the local community (see photo above). Globally, the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) works with National Geographic to help improve its sustainability. In Berchtesgaden, that includes finding ways to contribute to the environmental and social sustainability of the local region. Projects include helping to clean up farming areas and assisting rangers to count trees in the national park. Staff are given time off during working hours to participate in these activities and guests are encouraged to join in. The resort also supports Berchtesgaden Hilfe, a local organisation helping those who are less fortunate in what is otherwise a prosperous region of Germany.

The resort, which opened in 2005, was built using local and natural building materials. Waste water is treated so that it can be reused and heating and air-conditioning has been designed to be energy-efficient. Using IHG’s Green Engage software system, Geißelmann can compare energy and water usage with other IHG resorts around the world. “We can learn from others and see where we can improve,” he says.

More eco-initiatives

Another hotel that is leading the way is Schloss Fuschl Resort and Spa (see photo above), located in an environmentally protected area near Salzburg. Part of the Starwood brand, the lakeside chateau has reduced its carbon footprint thanks to a number of initiatives, including an airconditioning system that retrieves cold water from Lake Fuschl. Ninety per cent of its energy is produced using a carbon-neutral, ecologically friendly biomass boiler, which feeds on locally produced wood pellet fuel.

In addition, 70% of the food used at the hotel is sourced locally and the castle has its own fishery. For the past 20 years, local fisherman Gerhard has cast his nets into the crystal clear water of the lake to catch trout, carp, tench and other fish which is taken straight to the kitchen at Schloss Fuschl where, depending on the catch, the day's menu is decided on by the chef. Hotel guests can also meet Gerhard as he sits by the lakeside on sunny days. The hotel also uses electric golf carts to enable both guests and staff to get around and new this year are hire electric bicycles, available to guests so that they can discover the surrounding area. “Investments for climate protection and the local environment require sustainable thinking,” explains Wolfgang Greine, managing director of Schloss Fuschl.

It is clear there is much more on offer than ski slopes in the Alps. Nevertheless, winter sports will continue to provide an important and valuable option for tourists as well as being a key contributor to the local economy as long as hotels, resorts and communities alike can work together and create a sustainable future.

To download the latest Tourism in climate change CIPRA report, which is available in French, German, Italian and Slovenian only, visit
By Kathleen Armstrong

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