Sustainability, mass tourism and the cult of the real skier

The lore of real skiers and small ski areas that rock


Little ski areas rock, the mom-and-pop owned operations are keeping it real, saving the sport of skiing from McDonaldization by the evil empire, that the big ski resort corporations present. Although exaggerated a little, this is the lore that has been passed on to skiers by the ski media for years. According to the fable, there are also two distinctively different breed of people within the sport: one is the real skier, able to rip up any slope or spin off any booter, the other is the loathed tourist – a kook who can barely stay upright in the lift queue.


As a norm, when choosing a ski area, the real skier skis mostly cares about attributes like vertical and snow-record and chooses to ski in small ski areas with very little amenities – the fewer and older the lifts, the more street-cred it has. On his or her holiday the ripper travels the globe in search of the next Valley X – a secluded place with as little skiers as possible: India, Japan, Iceland, Greenland, Kamchatka, or better yet – Antarctica. At the same time the tourists, who obviously know nothing about skiing, horde the big well-known mega resorts.


Small, remotely located ski area with just a couple of t-bars – every “real skiers” dream? Location: Kirovsk, Russia.



The reality


Rather than tourists, we all want to see ourselves as cool vagabond skiers, but if you take a look at the definition of tourism by the World Tourism Organization (UWTO) from 1991, it´s pretty clear that        we´re all tourists when we travel to ski: “the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year.”


Regardless of the ski media lore or what you see or post in the Instagram, the reality also is that most of us, who like think ourselves as cool ripping skiers spend a big chunk of our ski days in big, well-established resorts. The reasons are obvious: modern snow-making equipment translates to a longer ski season, an abundance of slopes and park features give your skiing the necessary variety and high-speed quads keep the lift lines short. With the ongoing struggle to hinder the progressing climate change, there might also be another reason to ski in the big ski resorts: it just could be more sustainable.




How is this possible you may ask – doesn´t a bigger size translate to a bigger impact? Well, bigger size usually means bigger profits as well, which can also be invested in sustainable causes. Not all big ski areas are of course sustainable, but over the past few years more and more resorts have turned their focus on sustainability in order to fight climate change.


Still not convinced? I´ll give you an example to prove my point: Laax, a resort situated in the Graubünden Canton in Switzerland, a couple of hours train ride southeast from Zurich. The joint Flims/Laax/Falera ski area has 55 slopes, 28 lifts and 4 terrain parks, so you could argue, that it is fairly big. And they really focus on sustainability: the resort started their environmental program titled Greenstyle already back in 2010, and they have set a particularly bold goal with it: to become the first self-sufficient ski resort in the world. This would mean producing all the necessary energy to run, not just the lifts, but the whole resort, including accommodation and transport, locally.


Reto Fry is leading the Greenstyle program in Laax, Switzerland.




What is sustainability?


To judge whether a ski area is sustainable or not, you first have to understand the meaning of the buzzword, that keeps popping up in the news constantly these days.

Sure, I understand it, you might say – something about being environmentally-friendly, right? Well, let´s start with a history lesson. One of the first definitions of sustainable development was made in a 1987 report by the so called Bruntland Commission, who basically described it as present development, that doesn´t compromise the future possibilities. That´s simple enough, but since then, it has been commonly accepted among researchers, that focus should be put, not only on environmental, but also on economical and socio-cultural aspects of the development. UWTO´s definition of sustainable tourism in 2004 used the same trio of attributes and also included mass tourism.


The inclusion of mass tourism was essential as traditionally mass tourism has been seen as the “evil” counterpart to the more environmentally-friendly eco- or sustainable tourism. Kind of like the division between the real skiers and the Jerry-the-tourists. This view has been lately challenged by researchers. Stefan Gösling noted in 2009 in his study Sustainable Tourism Futures Perspectives, that due to the term´s loose definition, sustainability is sometimes used cynically to gain added ethical standing, leading to what is sometimes referred as greenwash – eco-deeds that look good in marketing, but only affect to little in practice.

This not alien to the ski industry either, telling, for example that part of the energy (exactly how big a part is conveniently left out) used by the ski resort is produced by a windmill sounds ecological, while in reality investing in modern snowmaking equipment could be far more efficient – it just doesn´t have the same appeal to it.


Join the masses and point your camera towards the monkey. Location Jigokudani Park, Japan.



Some resorts, however, opt for a more profound approach to sustainability. Our example resort, Laax is already producing 80 gigawatts of energy with hydro power, covering a good chunk of the 280 gigawatts necessary to run the resort; transportation, buildings, lifts, the whole lot. According to Reto Fry who has been in charge of the resort´s Greenstyle program since 2010, the extra 200 gigawatts can be produced in the coming years with the help a new wind energy park in the Voralb glacier, more hydro and solar power and the use of bio mass: “instead of using heating oil, we use wood and heat pumps”, Fry concludes.


Reto Fry and the pellet heating unit, that provides the heating for the Rocksresort apartment hotel in Laax Resort.


The current pellet heating unit already heats all the Rocksresort apartment buildings (in 2020 this will also include the Signina hotel). Even extra heat produced by the tram machinery is caught and used to heat buildings. The resort´s new 2023 strategy aims to get rid of using oil for heating completely and switch to using renewables instead.

Ok. you say, so big resorts can be sustainable, but what´s wrong with opting to ski in small ski areas with very few people? Well, nothing really, if you happen to live close by, but in the 21st century few us do.



Richard Butler argued in his 2018 study Sustainable Tourism in Sensitive Environments: A Wolf in Sheep´s Clothing, that many award-winning eco-lodges are in fact situated in remote locations, requiring long-haul air travel, and thus, while being sustainable operations, do not represent real sustainable tourism.


Besides the possible long-haul air travel, travelling to remote locations to ski spreads the impact of tourism to an ever-wider area. The larger the area and the more companies – hotels, restaurants, transportation, ski lifts – there are involved, the more difficult it is to gain consensus to control the effects of tourism.


Eco resort in a faraway location isn’t necessarily sustainable. Location: Myoko, Japan.



Remember that remote lodge nestled deep somewhere in the Canadian Rockies that you have been drooling over? Well, sweet as it may seem, it probably isn´t the most sustainable option – unless you live in North-America of course, and opt to earn your turns instead of taking a heli ride up. “On a per capita basis the average mass tourist may be less harmful to the planet and its natural processes than the average sustainable tourist or ecotourist”, Butler concludes.




Mass tourism vs. alternative tourism


UWTO included mass tourism in their definition of sustainable tourism, but why should you be interested, you´re an individual, part of an alternative ski culture? Well, traditionally mass tourism has been associated with packaged tours, ready-made holidays, and of course with kooks, who can´t ski, but the term has been questioned recently by researchers.


It makes sense, I mean when you think about it, who, apart from your grandma, buys ready-made holidays from a travel agency anymore? Thanks to the internet we all reserve our flights and accommodation ourselves and think that we are awfully individual. Still, travel today is all about masses: in 2013 1,1 billion tourist arrivals were recorded, compared to only 25 million in 1950. Skiing or ski travel isn´t that individualistic either: France alone records around 55 million skier days per season.


Futuristic architecture for the masses. Location: La Plagne, France.



Maybe we should just update our views on mass tourism? When alternative or niche tourism, like ski tourism becomes the norm, surely it can be regarded as the new form of mass tourism? Michael Denning argued already in 1991 that we have come to the end of mass culture: “there is no mass culture; it is the very element we all breathe”. In this new broader sense mass tourism doesn’t mean hastily slapped together destinations and tourists who are ignorant about the local culture or the environment.


Like it or not, regardless of how we book our trip, we´re all part of mass tourism when we embark on a ski trip. A small drop in a river of millions of skiers flowing towards the mountains and ski areas. So, might as well be smart about it and choose to travel as sustainably as possible. Doing so could help in the birth of something new: sustainable mass tourism.




The impact of skiing and travel/tourism


1.  Environmental


Now that we have established that we´re all tourists, taking part in mass tourism when we travel to ski, let´s take a look at the tourism industry. In Europe, tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors and the largest industry, with Europe comprising over 60% of all tourism in the world. The Alps, the birthplace of skiing, cover roughly one quarter of the world tourism with its yearly visitor numbers around the 100 million marker.

Skiing has come a long way since the late 19th century: today there are roughly 120 million skiers globally and 400 million yearly ski visits.  In the 1950´s there was only a handful of ski resorts in the Alps, while today there are three hundred to choose from.


The Alps, where you can ski from one valley to the next, are the cradle of modern skiing. Location: Meribel, France.


Tourism on such a huge scale doesn´t come without it´s effects. Environmental impacts include noise and pollution caused by cars arriving to the ski resorts. According to Philipp Ackel´s 2004 study Managing Tourism and the Environment, 48% of the population in Schönberg, Austria felt inhibited by the noise of the local Autobahn and 25% of Switzerland´s trees were damaged by high percentage of pollutants. While air travel might not impact as much locally, it represents the lion-share of the CO2 emissions caused by a ski holiday.


Bigger and more well-established resorts usually have better access by public transport, making the better-equipped to fight impact caused by transport to the ski area. According to Reto Fry from Greenstyle in Laax, travel to the resort represents roughly 75% of the CO2 emissions caused by a ski holiday. In a 2018 interview Fry said that he had been looking for travel agencies offering sustainable holidays, but couldn´t find any. “We are going to offer people coming by electric cars enough infrastructure to charge up their cars with energy produced with solar panels and hydro-electricity locally”, Fry adds now.


Not everybody can arrive with an electric car of course, according to Fry Laax encourages people to arrive by train: “the public transport is actually on high standard here in Switzerland”, he adds. The raised climate awareness has already inflicted a phenomena called “fly shame” in many countries and we have seen news about a London-based travel agency starting to sell ski trips by train directly from London to the French Alps, so Reto Fry´s mission to find sustainable holiday makers could soon be fulfilled.


Swiss railway – works like a clock. Location: Zürich, Switzerland.


Pollution by the transport to the ski area is not the only impact of ski travel. In her study The Impacts of Skiing on Mountain Environments Kathy Martin argued that many European mountain ecosystems are already heavily altered by agriculture, forestry and intense recreational activities, such as skiing development. Martin lists habitat loss from resort areas and slopes, high altitude erosion and development in valley bottoms, acting as barriers for wildlife with seasonal vertical movement, as main impacts to the flora and fauna caused by ski areas.


Impact to the flora and fauna is of course partly linked to the size of the ski area, meaning that the bigger the resort, the bigger the impact. Lately, however, researchers like Richard Butler, have introduced the term resilience when discussing sustainable tourism. Resilience refers to the ability of an environment or community to recover from the shock caused by tourism development.


Ski areas can improve their resilience by limits on visitor numbers and behavior and prohibitions on certain types of activity, for example. In Laax, cantonal and municipal authorities have joined forces with the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) to protect the area´s wildlife from the shock caused by activities, like skiing. Together, they have created special refuge areas and defined wildlife protection areas and zones, a dozen of which are situated in the Flims Laax Falera ski area, including flight restriction zones for paragliders.


Fit for a postcard – nature and wildlife protection area. Location: Laax, Switzerland.


The protected areas are also off-limits to skiers and are clearly marked in the trail map. According to local gamekeeper Claudio Spadin, the protection zones are vital for especially the hooved animals during the winter, in order to survive the cold and food-scarce period stress-free, reserving the energy for maintaining their body-heat. In an already over-populated planet, it just could be better for the environment to improve the resilience of existing ski resorts and leave currently undeveloped areas and remote mountain ranges as sanctuaries for wildlife.



2. Socio-economic / cultural


Ski tourism also has an impact on the local culture and economics. In many areas of the Alpine countries tourism has replaced farming and agriculture as the main industry. According to Phillipp Ackel, Obertauern in Austria, a village with roughly 300 inhabitants, provides 6000 beds for tourists and has about 700 000 yearly over-night stays. It is clear that the area is heavily-depended on tourism, but the shift to tourism has also raised the standard of living, and according to Ackel, also the tax income: the income tax through tax on drinks in Obertauern accounts now 80 times more than the tax income through agriculture.


With the help of the higher tax income, the ski area communities can now spend more money on their infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, swimming pools, public transport and roads. “The improvement raises the standard of living: children get a better education and public transport and new roads make travelling, shopping and deliveries easier”, Ackel concludes. If one were to look for a negative effect of the economic impact, it would be the rise of prices, which can become somewhat overwhelming to locals, like students, low-wage workers, pensioners or farmers, who are not benefitting from the risen salary level.


Low-wage workers, pensioners and farmers might not be able to enjoy the raised standard of living in the resort. Location: Obertraun, Austria.


Big resorts might not necessarily have the best reputation, when it comes to rising local price-levels, but resorts, who have a holistic approach to sustainability understand the importance of the local community. Reto Fry, the leader of the Greenstyle program grew up in Flims/Laax, so he realized from a very early stage, the area´s dependency on tourism.


He now regards the regions unique landscape and nature as it´s biggest capital and something that should be protected also for that very reason. A notion, which is backed up by an estimation, that 90% of the profits in Laax are made during only four winter months of the year. Fry now understands the connection between creating jobs for the locals, running an alpine tourism destination and protecting the environment: “it has to be good for the environment – and the local economy”, he adds.


There is also a nonprofit Greenstyle Foundation, which works on a crowd-funding principle and funds local eco-projects. One such project during the 2017/2018 season received 7000 Swiss Francs to support local food production. As a principle Laax also works with community suppliers to source local produce, which cuts down transportation emissions and supports the local economy.




In a nutshell


What does this all mean then, are you saying that small ski areas are bad for the skiing and the environment? Do I have to give up travel? Can I not make fun of Jerries anymore? By no means, I for one love small, unassuming, dedicated ski areas. Places like La Grave in France, Krippenstein in Austria or Tamok in Norway, but it doesn´t mean that I wouldn´t love big resorts, who do things right either. And as demonstrated by this article, they can actually be more sustainable. When it comes to choosing a ski destination, sometimes I love a spartan approach with a mindfulness-enhancing pure-skiing-focus, while occasionally the more hedonistic offering of a big resort ticks all the right boxes of the wish-list.


I do think though that every once-in-a-while it´s healthy to take a closer inspection at ourselves and the cultures and subcultures we live in. Skiing has it´s myths and lores, that we take pretty much for granted. One is the division between the real skiers and the tourists, the other between the small ski areas and the big resorts. It would maybe do all of us good, if we admitted that we´re all tourists, taking part of a mass tourism movement when it comes to ski travel.


“We´re all tourists, taking part of a mass tourism movement when it comes to ski travel.” Location: Laax, Switzerland. Skiers: Ethan Stone and Ahmet Dadali.



After the initial shock, this might not be such a bad thing, since masses can make more of a difference than single individuals. If we would all act a little bit more sustainably regarding our ski travel, together we could have a significant impact. After all, it is not that difficult: if possible, choose public transport, if you have to fly, choose short-haul, rather than long distance, increase the length of your stay, rather than the trip frequency and finally, choose a sustainable ski destination. And give Jerry a break – he´s still learning to ski and could someday outski you.


This article was first published in the 2019 The Book Of Ski Stories by Downdays Magazine




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