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Swiss Alpine resorts grapple with climate change

Resorts are adding summer activities to stay viable as predictions say that even at 3,000m, pistes could see snow depths more than halved by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed

By Michael Shields  /  Reuters, AROSA, Switzerland

Hotels and restaurants charge more in winter too, but the strong Swiss franc has priced many people out.

Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the Swiss government says the long-term outlook for tourism is healthy.

“Mountain summers can position themselves as an alternative to the Mediterranean regions,” a 2017 report said.

Summer tourism already accounts for 60 percent of overnight stays across Switzerland, but the season brings in only 18 percent of revenue, said Therese Lehmann, an economist at the University of Bern’s Center for Regional Development.

Government data already show a 24 percent drop in skiers in the decade to 2016, with other factors as well as climate change.

“The decline of ski tourism — a powerful economic engine — will have more of an impact than the additional revenue in summer,” said Dominik Siegrist, director of the Institute for Landscape and Open Space at Switzerland’s University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil.

Europe’s population is aging and younger people are less interested in skiing. Snowshoeing, winter hiking, sledding and ski touring — in which people hike up mountains, are on the increase, industry lobby Swiss Tourism says.

Consolidation of winter tourism is on the horizon, with overnight stays in bigger Swiss resorts up 1 percent in the decade to 2015, but down 17 percent in smaller ones.

“Lots of smaller ones are grasping at straws, trying to survive as long as they can because the valleys depend on this tourism,” Siegrist said.

SNOW HARVESTS

Large resorts in the Swiss cantons of the Grisons and Valais, Austria’s Tyrol pr ovince and France’s Savoie region have the marketing pull to survive, Siegrist said, listing high-altitude Andermatt, Zermatt and St Moritz in Switzerland.

The Andermatt Swiss Alps resort, in central Switzerland, is targeting cyclists in summer, and has also built new lifts to lure fans of winter sports.

It covers a nearby glacier with strips of artificial fleece in spring to help reduce melting and creates piles of snow higher than houses to deploy on ski pistes as early as November to avoid having to use expensive artificial snow.

The strong Swiss franc has hit ski lifts focused on winter business from European visitors hard in the past 10 years, the government says, but the minority of lifts with strong summer business are booming thanks to visitors from overseas.

Many smaller lift firms get cheap loans and, increasingly, state subsidies to help balance the books, Lehmann said.

Roughly a third are debt-free, but depend on long-haul tourism, which she said was not ideal from an environmental point of view, because flights are a major contributor to holiday carbon emissions.

“Maybe we have to get away from focusing solely on growth, and promote Alpine areas as good habitats for living, not just for tourism,” she said.

Listed cable car companies Bergbahnen Engelberg Truebsee Titlis Bet AG and Jungfraubahn Holding AG, cite year-round visitors from Asia — especially China and India — as important sources of income.

Asked about sustainability, Titlis marketing director Peter Reinle said the firm’s prospects were good for the next 50 years.

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