For most people in Europe, the Alps present a foreign landscape: Here, it snows in high summer, the ice does not melt and all of the valleys are dominated by rocky peaks and crags. Because the Alps are a genuine high alpine region; the closest similar mountains can only be found on the outskirts of Europe, in Iceland, northern Scandinavia and in the Caucasus.
People who travel through the Alps tend to think that the mountains are a natural landscape where the only manmade alterations occur in the touristic centres. In these spots, the mountains are being turned into “the playground of Europe” as historian Leslie Stephen put it in 1871. Outside of them, the mountains seem to be natural, as they were originally.
But this popular opinion is a mistaken one. After organised agriculture began around 6000 BC, humans started to bring about profound change to the Alps, as they created a mosaic of pastures by clearing the dark mountain forests, turning the mountainscapes into a more open landscape, where nature and human culture were closely interlocked.
So that the areas where humans dominated did not become environmentally unstable, alpine residents developed a number of clever forms of farming that allowed them to use the Alps without destroying them. This is how the high alpine areas, once inhospitable to human life, became an environment where humans could live, impacted by types of commerce and culture that were not found in any other part of Europe. That is why we can say that the Alps are neither a playground, nor a wilderness. Rather they are an old, decentralised habitat. Those who do not know the Alps often mistake the open, park-like settings for nature’s own doing.
For many thousands of years, the Alps were an important and relatively independent region, when it came to traditional livelihoods, but one that was still tightly bound to Europe. The industrial revolution changed all that. This new, highly technological and extremely collaborative way of making a living disadvantaged the Alps and it was only the valleys that were easy to reach that could participate in the revolution. Meanwhile mountainous habitats were progressively devalued. Today the number of residents living in the numerous side valleys has fallen significantly and there are few jobs. Farming has also decreased and half of the formerly arable areas have fallen into disrepair, reclaimed by the forests as local vegetation takes over.
The people who still live here are ready to take into account that they have to travel further to get to work in the main valleys. There is only one movement going in the opposite direction, one which values the peripheral regions: With the industrial revolution came, for the first time in human history, tourism. And the Alps played an important role for tourism from the beginning.
By 1914 there were already a hundred centres of tourism in the Alps but it was not until 1955 that mass tourism really caught on. Up until today that phenomenon has affected around two-thirds of all Alpine communities. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Alpine tourism has tended to stagnate because it is competing with many exotic destinations and cheaper long distance flights as well as an end to a fascination with spending summer in the mountains.
Mountain railways, ski lifts and hotels continued to be built anyway and the competition for clientele grew. For the last 15 years one can describe the competition as cut throat and the situation as tough enough to have driven many small- and middle-sized operators out of the market. At the moment there are only 300 tourist centres, in 6,000 or so Alpine districts, which are expanding. So we can safely say that the enrichment of the Alpine periphery through tourism has ended.
Modern developments in the Alps mean that the earlier, decentralised culture is disappearing – and this is happening in two ways. Either agricultural practice is ending completely in these areas in which case the forest quickly grows back, or the Alps are being utilized in a more modern way. This is happening in valleys with rail or highway connections, and is leading to an impersonal urbanization or, in the tourist areas, to interchangeable ghettos for popular recreation. No matter which one occurs, it leads to the loss of specifically Alpine forms of commerce and culture.
This is not just happening in the Alps, it is occurring all over Europe. Since the industrial revolution, region-specific forms of commerce and culture that differed greatly between the low mountain ranges, fertile plains and sea coasts have been disappearing. They are being replaced by forestation or by urbanization, just as in the Alps. As a result, Europe is losing diverse cultural treasures of an earlier age.
The disappearances in the Alps, as in Europe, are threefold. Firstly, there is a decrease in natural diversity and the loss of micro-habitats because the forests in Europe are comprised of fewer species. Secondly, the economy is focused more on urban areas and businesses are pulling out of peripheral areas, which leads to their devaluation. Thirdly, human beings are losing their connection to the environment, in the cities and in the countryside, and this loss weakens our feelings of responsibility for our own surroundings.
For all of these reasons, there is no argument for turning the Alps back into a wilderness. Instead the alpine region should be valued as a decentralized space for living and working, that allows us to use the natural resources there without destroying them.
In order to achieve this, the areas used by tourism cannot be allowed to expand any further. New cable cars and ski lifts should be forbidden and damage to the environment should be repaired. Businesses should offer more strongly region-specific services. Additionally all of the decentralized commercial activities (for example, agriculture, handicrafts, trades and tourism) that specialize in quality regional products should be supported, which would allow all relevant actors to come together and build up region-wide value- and supply chains.
Because the residents in the alpine region can no longer live off local resources alone, the area also needs subsidiaries of external firms to be established here. Having said that it would be important to ensure that both of these types of commercial entities do not compete, in the way they do today. Instead they should support one another. In this way the Alps would build upon the idea of a space for decentralized commerce and culture, without damaging the environment and without closing itself off to the outside world either.