Living Labs: Transitions to Sustainable Ski Tourism in the Alps
article written by MRI
03.05.23 | 10:05

Mountain ski resorts are all faced with the challenge of coping with the effects of climate change these days. As the IPCC concluded in its latest assessment reports, climate change affects 1.28 billion people who reside in and around mountain areas across the globe, and has impacted a wide range of human and natural systems, including tourism. With rising temperatures and more extreme weather impacting current and potentially future ski seasons, what can resorts do now to survive in the future?

Some ways in which mountain regions can adapt are to educate and raise awareness, promote the conservation of native flora and fauna, or promote mountain products such as eco-tourism. A project created by the Interreg Alpine Space Programme, is aiming to facilitate the adoption of co-constructed transition processes in ski resorts. The challenge is to promote new models of economic, social, and environmental development that support a sustainable future in mountain regions.

During a webinar ‘Transitions to Sustainable Ski Tourism in the Alps of Tomorrow’, which took place on 22 March 2023, TranStat addressed the issues faced by mountain resorts that are in transition, through the creation of a physical and digital network, in order to share their knowledge and experiences. One such example presented at the webinar was the St. Corona am Wechsel resort, a ‘living lab’ in Austria.

What Is A Living Lab?

A Living Lab is that tests out new products or services in a real-life setting. As ski resorts are seeing the impacts of climate change and suffering with a lack of snow and warming temperatures, a Living Lab project might be one way in which a resort can adapt to climate change impacts, and transition smoothly from their main type of tourism – such as skiing – to summer tourism. During times of climate change, as well as social and economic change, the resilience of mountain social-ecological systems needs both the flexibility to respond to these changes, and to also be prepared for change and be able to adapt. An example of this is the work of the MRI’s Resilience Working Group, which aims to collect existing knowledge and build new capacity in mountain resilience. They are working towards a dynamic assessment of the changing state of mountain social-ecological system resilience, to interconnected environmental changes.

The Transition From Winter To Summer Tourism

Skiing has suffered in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and with the current cost of living crisis. Not only that, but there are observed changes in seasonality that are negatively impacted the mountain winter tourism and recreation sector. Climate change is projected to lead to profound changes and irreversible losses in the mountains, but despite this, most investments in mountain tourism are still spent on skiing facilities, because their use continues to be considered profitable. An example is the Ötztal-Pitztal plan to expand the ski area and connect the two Austrian resorts – despite research showing it will have damaging impacts on the environment. But ski resort operators want to go ahead with the plan to expand anyway, as skiing is still seen as a desirable activity and profitable industry, and the demand is still high amongst tourists. However, for other ski resorts, investing in winter tourism is no longer viable, and even using adaptation methods such as installing snowmaking technologies can be costly and ineffective – both economically and environmentally. The resort of St. Corona am Wechsel in Austria, for example, saw that it was no longer financially viable to run the lifts during the winter season. With warmer temperatures and summer tourism becoming more popular in recent years, the resort decided to transition from a winter ski resort to summer adventure tourism. Their advantage was the fact that their target audience – families – stayed the same, so the transition was perhaps smoother in that sense, but it was also perhaps a smoother transition due to it being a part of the Living Labs project.

Why Reposition If Skiing Is Still Popular?

Low-elevation ski resorts don’t get as much guaranteed snow, and with warmer temperatures, these resorts are going to see less and less snow over the years, and therefore fewer visitors in the winter – unless they adapt. There might be some high-altitude ski resorts that choose to stay focused on the winter season, especially since repositioning a resort from winter to summer is not easy, and skiing appears to still be very popular, with over 370 million skier visits worldwide in 2021/22. But it is becoming more obvious that resorts need to think about adaptational methods. For smaller, lower-elevation resorts, perhaps now is the time to change.

Change can be scary, but change is also sometimes necessary. The repositioning of St. Corona am Wechsel was met with strong resistance from the local community, but the resort operators put on workshops and information evenings for the community, and involved the mayor too, which informed them of the changes being made. Eventually, the community realised the importance of adapting to climate change and how summer tourism is just as important as winter tourism.

Changing To Low-Impact Tourism

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism products and services in mountains should shift from high-impact tourism to low-impact, climate-sensitive ones, and create new opportunities that can benefit local communities whilst enhancing conservation. It allows visitors to experience mountain landscapes differently, and explore flora and fauna and local cultural heritage too. If it is properly planned and developed, it also has a variety of economic and social benefits to communities, especially if their main source of income is dependent on tourism. It allows tourism to still exist, but in a more nature-focused, forward-thinking way, as it takes into consideration the issues such as climate change and environmental degradation because of tourism. A Living Lab and repositioning from winter to summer tourism might not be the right solution for all resorts at this time, but every ski resort does need to recognise the importance of planning for a future that will have warmer temperatures and not as much snow. The use of snow canons on ski slopes, for example, will not be the long-term solution to climate change adaptation. It might work for some resorts now, but in the future, more sustainable action will be needed. Therefore, the research on sustainable mountain development is more important now than ever, as we need this research in order to make better-informed, sustainable decisions in our changing mountains and to adapt to the changing climate.

Cover image by Daniel Frank.