Questionable Development - A Swiss inside look.

Questionable Development - A Swiss inside look.

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Skiing


In this article I would like to reflect on some thoughts about the latest development in Switzerlands' ski tourism industry. Being myself in the mountain tourism business (in Switzerland) I am aware of the difficult circumstances the industry faces nowadays. Having said this, it occures to me that the latest developments within this industry are rather unfavourable.

How it began

More than half of Switzerland's size consists of mountains. In the mid 19th century, the origins of mountain tourism started in a village called Davos. As a sanatory for ill, but wealthy, foreigners from all over Europe, mountains holidays were invented. Since then, tourism and especially winter tourism has become a significant income generator for the economy of Switzerland. Hence a lot of people depend on successful winter tourism.

In the 1950's and 60's ordinary people started to explore skiing as a leisure activity which used to be a sport for gentelmen and thrill seeking explorers. It became clear very quickly that there must be an easy possibility for the skiers to reach the summits. As a consequence ski lifts were introduced and soon plenty of mountain villages had to have their own ski lift infrastructure.

At this time the skiing industry never really had to worry about snow. Every winter there was enough of the "white element". From late November trough to April, even May, skiing was possible. Unfortunately, the situation looks far away from being ideal nowadays.

Status Quo

Fact is that different environmental factors caused a break in climate patterns and therefore in the snow cicle.

Some years ago, the snow didn't start to come as expected. When it came tough, it was not in the usual masses. This trend can still be observed right up to today.

The situation of mountain cablecar managers due to the climatic problems are very serious. What are they going to do? Winter time is the business time where the employees as well as the village community depends on. The core business is providing access to a mountain for ski tourists. At this point the main problem comes into play. A sufficient service cannot be provided because of lack of snow which results in a low profits. Basically the managers have two options for this problem:

Option 1: Hopeing for more snow in the future and be optimistically (Eventually closing down in the coming years)

Option 2: Invest in infrastructure to "cheat" on nature.

Most of the mountain resorts decide on option 2 where also problems start.

In the beginning of this development, a few mobile snowcannons were put into place. They helped covering the few places with snow which could not receive enough for a decent ski slope. Unfortunately it is a different picture today. Close to none of the mayor ski resorts can afford not having an extensive network of snowcannons. Problems occure for the soil, since artificial snow stays much longer into spring. As a consequence it prevents the vegetation,for example grass and flowers, to blossom as planned in spring. A fair number of ski slopes belong to local farmers who in return depend on it as feeding ground for their cattle. On the one hand it helps the skiing business, on the other hand it damages agricultural resources. There are numerous other examples of infrastructure which damages nature.

Another worrying trend is that a significant number of cablecar providers try to extend their lift network to every piece of snow and glacier which is left. Consequently natural sanctuaries are flatened for ski slopes and local wildlife are ousted from their winter habitats. In most cases the infrastructure also spoils the scenic mountain views. It is understood that nowadays a solid infrastructure is needed to attract tourists, but for what price?

There is not only a big construction boom on the mountains but also in the villages. Several investors planning to build mega projects ranging from hotel towers to alpine shopping malls. There is nothing bad about these ideas but all to often, laws are expanded almost to illegality and there is no sustainable concept behind it. Cultural village centers are disturbed by a modern mega hotel or agriculturaly grassland is used for parking lots.

What it needs

Clear trends indicate that the overall number of ski tourist decreases and will decrease in the future. The incalculable weather and clima as well as different external factors all lead to the point where mountain resorts must act.

But how they will act is the major challenge. It might be easy to establish new mountain cablecars or hotels. Since there are not enough tourists it will be a problem of financing the infrastructure in the long run. On the other side, it is evident that they cannot just wait and do nothing. They have a considerable high responsability for their communities.

It probably comes to the awareness of finding sustainable concepts for whole regions. Mountain cablecar operators, villages, cummunities, tourist services, governments, public transportations and environmental agencies must unite and create solutions of how to develope their resorts in the future. Everybody will depend and help each other to maintain a healty ski and mountain tourism.

Solutions must be found that people can experience a wonderful mountain region at a minimal impact. Perhaps sustainable and alternate ways of how to enjoy the mountains must be found. Nature changes and we should change our ideas as well as our awareness of how to protect it in the long run.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-17 of 17
T Sharp

T Sharp - Jan 1, 2007 4:46 pm - Voted 10/10

Interesting Read!

This is a perplexing problem for you Swiss, I am not sure if local engineering will provide the answer, the solution is probably global, and [I am embarassed to say] it will fall to your generation to figure out.
Best Regards;

piz simon

piz simon - Jan 2, 2007 10:33 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting Read!

Hi Tim
Yes, you are absolutely right, it really falls to our generation to act. The "problem" is the generation above us. Two generations ago (let's say they are around 80 years now) they still treated nature with respect, since lots of them depended heavily on it e.g. farming, cattle ecetera. During the boom years in the 50/60's this consciousness had been blinded out by a whole generation, due to the economical profit which could have been made with tourism. Now we try our best to bring it back into equilibrium.....


gogo - Jan 8, 2007 1:55 pm - Voted 10/10

What is left behind

Thank you for your post, I agree with you.
Aside the things you say, there is also the problem of dismissed infrastructures left on the ground like garbage. One of my earlyest "4000" was Punta Gnifetti (Signalkuppe) from Italian normal way. It was horrible to see all those steel cables, shafts and wheels left on Indrenglacier, at 3500m. Being italian, alas I must admit I have the sensation that they will never be disposed off and I have the same sensation for the Indren infrastructure, recently dismissed. Hope that something will change soon (and better)... G.


ronyay - Jan 18, 2007 12:13 am - Hasn't voted

Re: What is left behind

Just a curious question:
Is there some way a group like a hiking or skiing club could obtain authorization to dispose of the garbage and dismantle the obtrusive infrastructure? I do not know about Switzerland but in the United States many hiking clubs and mountain biking clubs organize "volunteer days" to maintain trails and recreation areas. It becomes a beneficial, free, and good-feeling contribution. All that is involved is willing free labor. Would this be feasible in Switzerland?


JScoles - Jan 8, 2007 2:57 pm - Hasn't voted

The same all over

Unfortunately it is the same the whole world over. From the Alps to The Rockies to Nepal. Development vs preservation.

1) do we leave it alone so only the chosen elite can enjoy it and
the local population is destitute

2) do we develop it and destroy it in the process.

It is the old story 'one man's meadow is another's wasteland'.

Balanced and sustainable development is the only answer but unfortunately I think global warming will solve to problem for us withing the next 10 years.

piz simon

piz simon - Jan 8, 2007 10:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: The same all over

Yes, you got it, I like your last sentence, maybe that will solve it to a certain degree. Questions is, who is gonna take of all the infrastructure trash from the mountains? We will see...

Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt - Jan 8, 2007 5:54 pm - Voted 10/10

A very long-term view

If you take a look at human history I believe you will find that each culture has always fought to retain the status quo. Change is inevitable on every level of our existence, whether political, economic, religious, climate, or personal.

Things evolve over time, like it or not. Though I don’t expect to see it occur in my lifetime, I hope that humanity will eventually learn to accept change and try to adapt rather than fight every step of the way.

Your article points to but one of many situations in the world which appear to be caused by climate change. Many such changes have occurred during the earth’s history. A few of the early occurrences may have even provided the basis for the eventual evolution of humanity.

Since the arrival of our kind on this planet, we have survived many changes in climate, a few quite drastic. To be sure those changes proved fatal to many individuals, families, cultures, and political states. Yet, our species has continued to survive.

Consider for a moment that every mountain we climb today, at one time did not exist. Previous hills and mountains were destroyed by climate, eroded into the oceans in an eons-long transition from large blocks, to boulders, to rocks, to gravel, to sand, and then to molecules, some of which were changed further by planetary forces before reemerging as the mountains we know today.

Individual peaks, whole ranges, even continents may disappear, but mountains survive. Individuals, families, cultural groups, even countries may disappear, but (so far) our species survives. An analogy, one which I’m not claiming is correct or that I even believe. Interesting nonetheless.

"It is not the strongest of a species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones the most responsive to change." Charles Darwin

piz simon

piz simon - Jan 8, 2007 11:00 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: A very long-term view

photohiker, thanks for your well chosen thoughts and words. really interessting view.

Zzyzx - Jan 14, 2007 4:47 am - Hasn't voted

Re: A very long-term view

Thephotohiker, I really like what you wrote. The change is inevitable, yet we as human beings always resist it.
Interesting and thought-provoking article. Thanks for posting.


Whitesail - Jan 8, 2007 6:22 pm - Voted 9/10

What it needs?

I agree with most of your article but in your conclusion you wrote:-

"Clear trends indicate that the overall number of ski tourist decreases and will decrease in the future."

Do you really think tourist numbers are showing signs of decreasing? Visitor numbers have surely shown no long term sign of reducing numbers? True the winter season is starting later but surely more people than ever are skiing? If not why is there such a building boom in the Alps?

piz simon

piz simon - Jan 8, 2007 10:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: What it needs?

That's interestin what you say. I have (not all) but some answers. It's true that there is a hype to certian degree, but statistics (from Switzerland) of last year showed that the trend is really going down. The building boom exists only for a few years now. The industiry discovered something new, that is: Second homes and wellness! It's crazy how many , even small, villages try to attract wealthy investors who build second home condos. There are a lot of really (new-)rich people around who just like to buy a condo or a house in the alps. They are not going to ski, but drinking champagne. A good example is St. Moritz. The government even had to initiate a bill that stops the uncontrollable building boom of second homes in St. Moritz.


Whitesail - Jan 9, 2007 12:30 pm - Voted 9/10

Re: What it needs?

Interesting what you say also. I agree there is defiantly some hype on the subject but you do not have smoke without fire………

It seems to be agreed that the permanent snows and freezing levels seem to be on average higher each year in the Alps and many glaciers are shrinking – the Rhone Glacier is a dramatic example of this near you.

Because of the milder winters in the Alps many of the lower ski resorts are finding the seasons shorter and thus they are less profitable and thus banks are less likely to provide loans for ski infrastructure for them. There is a lot of talk of diversification in some resorts.

I would be interested to see the statistics saying skiers in the Alps are decreasing over all as I’m surprised by this. In the UK journalists are saying more people than ever are skiing. Perphaps some of it is journalist hype? It would not surprise me if less Swiss people are skiing but all statistics I’ve seen have shown skiing becoming ever more popular. By my own personal experience the areas of the Alps that I know reasonably well (Savoie, Haute Savoie, Valais and the Dolomites), all seem to be attracting more visitors each year for skiing. Working in the travel industry as a pilot, I find Geneva and Grenoble airports are busier year on year in the ski season as people become more affluent. It may be that there are less Swiss people skiing but perhaps this is because they are taking more holidays outside of Switzerland? This is defiantly the case for British people in that they are taking more foreign holidays rather than staying in the UK.

There is defiantly a building boom in some of the Valais region also. From what I’m aware of there have been new foreign ownership restrictions placed on properties in Verbier, Crans Montanna, Grimentz etc. Surely the restrictions are partly due to the increasing demand?

Thanks for your interesting and revealing article.

piz simon

piz simon - Jan 10, 2007 8:02 am - Hasn't voted

Re: What it needs?

Very interessting what you are writting. It's surely true, that a lot of British travellers are coming to Switzerland. A few days ago I just spoke with a friend who is mountaineering guide in the Valais. I told me that they have more British tourist in the last few years, but on the other hand they lost a lot of German tourists, so it kind of balances bt he told me that they had better years in terms of visitors.

I try to put some statistics by the Swiss Federal Statistic Institute here. There is also the question of how long the visitors stay. A lot of people can afford weekend trips from England to the alps, thanks to easyjet and so on. What I know from hotel owner is, that they are certainly delighted about this, but what they need is a continuous and steady flow of visitorsn not only during some 2 or 3 weekends a year (when snowconditions match the expectations of the visitors).

Good thoughts of you!


Whitesail - Jan 10, 2007 11:27 am - Voted 9/10

Re: What it needs?

I think most German tourists travel to Switzerland by surface transport as a lot of British people fly. This would help explain why Geneva airport appears busier if more people from the UK are comming but less from Germany.

Your point about length of stay may be very significant. People who take short trips tend to be more driven by impulse because of good snow conditions etc. People who stay for a week have longer term prospects of good long term snow conditions etc.

Switzerland used to be very expensive to foreigners and has traditionally always had that reputation but at present the Swiss Franc is weaker than ever (£1=2.47CHF yesterday, £1=2.22CHF last year, £1=1.79CHF in 1995) that I suspect may attract more tourists in the future.

As a side note the statistics I saw for Verbier was that 56% of property sales were to British people alone in 1995!


mvs - Jan 16, 2007 10:03 pm - Voted 10/10

just saw...

I just saw helicopters bringing snow from the Großglockner to the Kitzbühel ski resort. They are doing it in other places in Austria too. This sounds like madness!

piz simon

piz simon - Jan 17, 2007 6:29 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: just saw...

hi mvs
oh, that doesn't surprise me, isn't also the Kitzbühl Ski Race very soon? Well at least it is real snow and not artificial snow canon stuff....duuhhhhh.....


Whitesail - Jan 18, 2007 5:19 pm - Voted 9/10

Re: just saw...

Herd the rumour in the Uk. Helicopter lifted snow or artifical snow..........neither sound very enviromentally friendly .......or bright. Of what I've seen it's just starting to snow/sleet/rain as they are doing this!

Here is a further link:-

Viewing: 1-17 of 17