Snow-covered mountains are the main tourist draw in the Alps. Climate change will melt away many of the area's best runs and also threaten to disrupt traditional Alpine culture.
They'll follow the snow
Climate change is already being felt in the Alps: the snow line is moving up and snowfall has decreased, shortening the ski season. Glaciers and permafrost are melting, and landslides and floods are increasing.
This spells disaster for Alpine communities whose economies depend on tourist dollars. Tourism, the environment and culture are closely linked in the Alps, said Peter Keller, director of tourism for Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs. For example, when local farmers close because there's no longer a local market for their produce, grazing will stop in Alpine meadows, changing the ecosystem.
Other types of tourism just can't match the affluent skiers who spend big money on lift tickets, gear rental and food, Keller said. Yet the Alpine ski industry is at risk to climate change and the effects are already being felt.
The search for snow
Ski tourists spend more money than other types
The worst case scenarios for global warming put the decrease in areas with reliable snow coverage at 66 percent.
“Climate is really important to the Alps,” Keller told DW-WORLD.DE on the sidelines of a recent United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) meeting held in Cartagena, Colombia. “People will go where there is snow. It's very opportunistic.”
Today, there are 699 alpine ski resorts with reliable snow cover. If the average temperature increases by 4 degrees Celsius, only 202 resorts would be able to count on reliable snow, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Of course, it's possible to make snow artificially. But this brings its own problems by increasing water and energy consumption, according to an OECD report released this year.
By 2030, the Bernese Oberland, one of the “big five” tourism regions in Switzerland, expects an average winter temperature increase of 1.8 percent. This will bring an estimated loss of 40 million euros ($58.7 million) to the region's annual turnover.
Banks have begun refusing loans to ski resorts under 1,500 meters (4,920 feet).
Tourism: culprit and victim
Tourism plays a crucial role in alpine culture, including farming
In Europe, tourism demand is the highest in three of the continent's most fragile ecosystems: its coastlines, islands and mountains, according to a report released in October by the European Environment Agency (EEA). Alpine regions such as Valle d'Aosta in Italy and Tyrol in Austria have the highest number of hotel beds per population, according to the EEA.
The UN's tourism organization realizes that tourism is both a victim of climate change and a cause as well, said Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary general of the UNWTO. Most tourists fly or drive to their destinations, emitting carbon dioxide on the way. It's estimated that tourism contributes 5 percent of global CO2 emissions.
The tourism sector needs to adapt the way it does business and become more environmentally sustainable, Lipman said. This can mean converting to solar power and making sure to protect natural resources.
Yet skiing is not generally seen as an environmentally-friendly industry. And as ski resorts look to go higher in search of more snow, there will be additional pressure on the ecosystem. Grooming additional runs reduces slope stability and extending ski areas upwards in search for snow disturbs ecosystems. A recent study in the Italian Alps shows a decrease in bird species and diversity in areas where ski runs had been made when compared with adjacent areas.
Looking towards the future
At lower elevations, snow will become scarce in the alps
In October, 400 people gathered in Innsbruck, Austria to talk about the future of winter tourism in the Alps. There was a general sense that it's too late for prevention. Instead, countries have to come up with strategies to adapt.
One of those might be promoting itself as a summer destination. The Alps will always remain cool compared with southern Europe's coasts. And that could become an asset in the future.
“It is possible that summer tourism in the mountains will be rediscovered,” Keller said.