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Hitting the piste

With eco-tourism in vogue as never before, Miriam Willis asks if our love affair with the ski slopes can ever yield a sustainable future


The simplest way to reduce our ecological impact in the Alps, logically, would be to close down the ski industry altogether. Yet, with a thriving contemporary culture and extensive history of Alpine tourism, this is an unwelcome option. Consequently, our attitude and behaviour need to be adjusted if we are to protect our mountain playgrounds.

Daunting, yet fragile; Europe’s most imposing mountain range offers a spectacular panoramic on all sides. Peaks, ridges, glaciers and foot hills have collectively inspired, challenged and claimed innumerable intrepid travellers. Initially the upper middle classes went looking for adventure and fame. Today Alpine tourism draws a host of extreme sport enthusiasts, holiday makers and lovers of nature.

From mountaineering to skiing, the Alps have had an increasing number of visitors since the 19th century. Individuals have gone to test their skills, their bravery, or just to enjoy the magnificent scenery. Yet extensive travel, over use and the wasteful behaviour of visitors has also damaged the environment. The question then, for mountain lovers, is what can we do to protect the delicate eco system we play in?

Our playground is at risk. The mountains are suffering from the effects of climate change. Glaciers are receding, changes in snowfall are recorded and warmer winters are threatening. There is also localised damage. In the ski season thousands of people flock to the slopes. Motorway pistes, carved out of the mountain, destroy vegetation. Rogue back-country riders; carve their signature lines into the nesting grounds of vulnerable fauna whilst those injured off the piste call out the fuel-guzzling emergency helicopter.

Resorts burn immense amounts of energy. Heating for hotels and chalets, ski lifts, motor transport for guests and rescue services all consume resources. Water is also expended in large quantities. Snow cannons pump water from the reservoirs to cover the piste in films of rough snow crystals – water that local villages rely on in the summer. On top of this the locals have to deal with waste left behind by a season of holidaymakers and maintain the mountain all year round. Mountain sport culture, in its fledgling years, thought little of the damage done by tourists to the previously undisturbed heights. In the Himalayas years of accumulated rubbish still sit at the base and along the main routes of classic peaks. White glacial faces are littered with luminous tents and glinting oxygen bottles, an open air museum recording expedition equipment through the ages.

Today though, attitudes are slowly changing, as people become more aware of global and local environmental problems. As an example, in an attempt to clean up sites such as the base of Everest, authorities now impose a weight-for- weight system. An expedition is expected, after it has consumed its own supplies, to remove an equal amount of waste from the mountain.

The Alps have not suffered environmental damage in the same way as Everest. Nevertheless, the traffic that passes through the region annually creates a vaster turnover of waste. The alpine tourist industry caters for millions of holiday makers per year. This consumes huge resources and causes long lasting disruption to the local eco system.

As awareness of environmental issues grows, tourism and travel have become topics of moral and ethical debate. Tourism in the Alps, especially the ski industry, is vulnerable to criticism. It is ironic that the people who love the mountains are also threatening this delicate and precious eco system.
Conscientious organisations are trying to cater to these slowly shifting mentalities and the desire for greener holidays. There are now independent eco-chalets, those who organise low impact overland travel and tours; these little gems are an example of positive change. Nevertheless, they are a small percentage of the industry. The majority of tour operators offer cheap flights, cheap accommodation and take little responsibility.

La Source is one such gem. Out of this company Saskia Anley, eco-tourism veteran and entrepreneur, runs Green Adventure Retreats, providing low budget, low impact, holistic adventure sports holidays, which aim to inspire a respect for the environment and self. These retreats offer people the chance to view the mountains differently, through cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, evenings of yoga, and healthy eating.

Based around the stunning Samoens valley in the French Alps, these holidays are refreshingly aimed at the lower economic spectrum of alpine tourists. The accommodation is sometimes simple and not particularly ‘eco’. But it is the mentalities and philosophies behind the retreats that are the attraction.
Four years of running an eco-chalet in the same region has also taught Saskia the restrictions of this type of tourism. “Having an eco house is all very well…but it is very expensive.” Especially with a renovation, she adds. Feeling that this limits the industry, she now concentrates on advising and guiding people towards alternative winter alpine activities. This way Saskia can reach more people and do more good in protecting the immediate environment. If you are interested in an affordable, holistic, ski package over New Year check out greenadventureretreats.com.

Ski resorts attract a diverse array of tourists; middle-class holiday makers and students coming for weeks at a time. Local people, come up from the cities just for the weekends often staying in owned apartments. There are also the season workers who work hard, play hard of course ride hard (with sleeping recommended but not essential).

This is largely a nomadic society; they stay for short periods of time and do not have to witness the damage they cause. This attitude of shifting responsibility is a fundamental problem in changing attitudes and behaviours in the mountains. The Respect the Mountains director; Aukje van Gervn notes that “A lot of people have no idea what their impact is in the mountain areas they visit, or they do know deep down, but tend to care less about places that are ‘not their back yard’. Respect the Mountains is a non-profit organisation » dedicated to promoting sustainable mountain tourism and building awareness in tourists (respectthemountains.com). Their goal is to encourage all areas of the tourist industry to reduce their environmental impact.

This organisation creates partnerships with businesses and organisations such as La Source, forming a network of like-minded companies. It also runs the event series Envirotrek, which combines sport activities with environmental education and local clean-up projects. The organisation encourages all mountain tourists, young and old, and the mountain industry to adopt the Respect the Mountains’ Seven Ways. By following these simple yet effective actions, all sectors of the mountain tourism industry are encouraged to reduce their impact, whilst building a sustainable future.

Aukje believes that creating awareness in people is the key to creating a sustainable future. She says, “The bottom line is that they just want to keep having a good time. We need to show them that sustainable choices can go hand- in-hand with enjoying the mountains and if they want these environments to continue to exist, they need to change their behaviour and make different choices.”

There is a web of organisations and individuals who are concerned with spreading environmental awareness in our snowy retreats. Respect The Mountains and Chamonix based Not for Profit organisation Mountain Riders both run educational events, conferences on sustainability and end of season clean up’s; popular with all ages. Closer to home the ski club of Great Britain publishes an online ‘Green Resort Guide’ www.skiclub.co.uk/skiclub allowing you to research which resorts recycle, have proper sewage management or a green building policy.

Online you can also find well respected ski journalist Patrick Thorn’s website: saveoursnow.com. Here Thorn shares his knowledge and experience on the acute effects of climate change in the mountains with resort owners, organisations and individuals. Save our Snow believes over all that more sustainable behaviour all year round is vital, travel being an obvious example. This annual awareness then should extend to ski holidays.

Save Our Snow draws attention to ski resorts, tour operators and individual accommodation providers who offer varying degrees of sustainable practice and respect for environmental issues. The list they offer, it is good to see, includes some large tour operators. If these big fish have serious environmental ethics, or are merely following the marketing tide of ‘green’ practice remains a question.

Big name, tour operator Crystal, whilst relying on air travel, promotes carbon offsetting. Competitor, Nelson, aims to minimise energy use in their UK base as well as in resort. While Alpine Pearls choose to operate in resorts involved in sustainable development. Only a tiny percent, however, offer No-Fly holidays such as Peak Retreats, or offer subsidies for over land travel such as Green Adventure Retreats.

With airplanes arguably causing over five times the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, per person, than the train , a lot of ‘green policies’ seem to be avoiding the most obvious issue; travellin there.

For a Brit travelling by train or car, the most economically, environmentally conscious, ski destination is the French Alps. The Eurostar from London runs a direct Snow Train to Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne or Bourg-St-Maurice that can get you there over night or through the day. It is also possible to get the Euro star to Paris and then pick a TGV to other destinations in the Alps. It’s a painful thing to accept, but as a tourist be glad: the French outstrip the British on all things concerning public transport!

When I arrive on the sleeper train to an icy alpine morning, at 6:10am, it is important to know that the resort busses are synchronised with the arriving trains. It is also good to know, as you mumble away in I-have-just-woken-up-French, that they keep running until all passengers have been catered for.

The French train systems are great. They are efficient, well maintained and designed for expansion. Unlike the British train system which was sold off to private companies in the 1980s: tracks one way, trains the other. The French put utility over business. The ideology being that a smooth running transport network equals a smooth running economy; money goes back into the system. All of this suits the tourist well when fleeing our own chaotic transport system for a little Alpine calm.

To facilitate increasing interested in overland travel, the environmentally conscious travel writer Richard Hammond has set up the informative greentraveller.co.uk. People can book through the website, or independently through Eurostar and the TGV if they want to navigate the websites for potential discounts.
Still, you may argue, the train takes longer? Perhaps it is this concern with time that is the problem and not the train? Anthropologist David Harvey suggested in the 1980s that the speeding up of economic and social processes has shrunk the globe. He points out that subsequently the actions of humans have ceased to be constrained by distance and time. The knock on effects of this speeding-up-of-the-pace-of-life means that people expect and want a high-speed-life, forgetting that it is actually quite nice to be able to enjoy time for its own sake.

For the Alps and other veteran ski resorts, what we can do is to adapt our practices and renovate our structures. We are learning, from experience, what not to do, as well as what is best for the local community and environment. This knowledge can also be used in developing resort areas, threatened by a replication of the same mistakes. In Kashmir, for example, a small team of Western entrepreneurs are helping construct an environmentally aware and sustainable ski industry. Run by the local community, they hope to bring revenue to the area without the imposing presence, and fly-by-night mentalities, of big tour operators. n

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