SUSTAINABLE TOURISM IN THE MOUNTAINS
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
The 1999 report of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development confirms that tourism is the leading world industry. There is already a turnover of US$444 billion annually for international tourism alone, not counting the domestic sector. Growth rates of over 4% have characterized the last 10 years and are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Soon there may be 1.5 billion tourists, a quarter of the present world population. The Alps have approximately a 10% share in this mass industry welcoming more than 120 million visitors every year along half a million kilometres of roads, sleeping in 5 million beds.
These astonishing figures prompt us to ask whether the earth can survive mass tourism especially if everybody develops the taste for travel of the rich nations.
Tourism commercializes the public good that is nature and culture, still relatively open, in many senses free, but of inestimable value. But is mass commercial tourism destroying the very essence of the natural and cultural heritage through the pressure on the landscape and the devaluation of ancient, authentic traditions ?
The Alps is both the most delicate ecosystem and the region of greatest density of both visitors and infrastructure, especially for winter sports. Surely we are near saturation point. At the height of the winter season a million and a half skiers are whisked away every hour on ski lifts ever higher and faster. Isolation and inaccessibility is no longer a barrier against intrusive high technology and the new thrill seeking cults like canyoning , bungy jumping, ski offpiste even on the remotest glacier where the object is the sensational without considering dangers to life or the environment. The Alps may soon reduced to an adventure playground. Already there are estimated to be as many as 800,000 participants in extreme water sports like canyoning and rafting, or on 3 million mountain bikes as well as the 12 million more contemplative types in 1600 mountain huts at high altitude run by the alpine clubs.
Adventure, "fun", the mega everything are part and parcel of the playboy mentality that creates such a hullabaloo, figurative and literal in global tourism disturbing the peace and quiet of nature. Of course there is a place for pleasure in the Alpine scheme of things but is it the bottom line?. The Alps are too precious to be toyed around with.
Even if tourism is the saving grace of the alpine economy and perhaps the only way of stopping the haemorrhage of the young to the plains. Even if the local people desperately want tourism and curse the ecologists, we have to ask if an inappropriate and excessive tourism is as great a threat as global warming and whether there have to be limits in time and space, whether there should be more and better protection and a strict system of seasons.
Alp Action and its distinguished partners have pioneered the idea of sustainable and soft tourism and I am delighted to see even from such august bodies as the European Commission more and more manuals telling us how to be environmentally friendly.
For more than ten years the challenging
mission of Alp Action has been to preserve one of the biggest natural regions in Europe
whilst maintaining economic viability, cultural integrity and recreative possibilities.
Parks and protected areas are at the centre of this
Although it is necessary to enlarge the
zone of protection and preserve intact the last areas of virgin wilderness it is also vital
to respond to the needs of the local communities. A middle way needs to be found between underdevelopment
and over development through reinforcing local and regional identity.
Tourism should become true to historical and cultural identity in order to best sustain
the local economy. Already there is a ready appreciation of regional products in holiday
resorts and much demand for folklore events
Alp Action, from its inception in 1990,
has remained true to this grass roots philosophy and has launched 140 projects in the six
alpine countries to reintroduce species, protect habitats, plant trees, restore alpages
and monuments, sustain mountain products, create
There are many hopeful projects which promise to add value to local production in a soft and sustainable way like the labels we are talking of today which attest to the quality and authenticity of products from the Pays d’Enhaut and the cooperative of Etivaz. or an Alp Action project, now ten years old, in Hindelang Bavaria where incomes were augmented in return for the careful maintenance of the landscapes. We have created for those products a label of ecological quality. Consumers, whether tourists or not, are prepared to pay that small supplement which ensures the health of everyone and the environment.
I would like to invite you today participate in another leading sustainable tourism project The Cultural Trail - which we will inaugurate tomorrow. This walk, through valley, pass and peak, across the kaleidoscope of alpine cultures owes its existence to our friends the Masterbakers, to whom we express deep gratitude not least for the delicious breads we have dined on today. Together since 1994 we have encouraged the use or traditional cereal varieties baked in one of the oldest village ovens in Switzerland at Blatten in the Lotschental Valais, and have promoted the Bread of the Alps baked by artisan labour from specially milled, local, rye , wheat and durum flours.
In raising consciousness amongst tourists, the tourist industry and the public at large, the role of the media is vital. The very future of the alpine ecosystem depends on the good behaviour of the millions of visitors who every year savour the manifold delights and the awe inspiring beauty of these mountains. I am delighted to see so many here today who share this vision and with whom we will work together to meet and overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow.