Climate change is affecting the Alpine region particularly badly, as last winter and the hot summer of 2022 show. Switzerland must become a sustainable year-round destination.
The hot summer of 2022 is also leaving its mark in Switzerland. The high alpine destinations of Zermatt and Saas-Fee are making negative headlines. The extraordinarily high temperatures at 3500 meters and the extremely low snowfall in winter make regular summer skiing impossible. It is small consolation for the people of Valais that there is just enough snow for professional skiers.
One of the most prominent representatives of the guild, the four-time overall World Cup winner Mikaela Shiffrin, made sure that the message went around the world. “I’m not sure if we can train on the glacier for much longer,” said the US ski star in the “Walliser Bote”. Another warning sign is that numerous mountain guides are currently being forced to forego classic high-altitude tours. This is because the danger from crevasses and falling rocks is simply too great for their customers.
The current conditions are an exception. It is quite possible that the snow situation will be different in summer 2023. However, this does not change the fact that climate change is hitting the Alpine region with full force. Glacier retreat, which is progressing faster than the pessimistic scenarios predicted, is just one symptom of the alarming changes.
Business basis is melting away
Swiss tourism must deal intensively and urgently with the consequences of global warming. Finally, with 14.8 billion Swiss francs (as of 2020), tourism makes a significant contribution to value creation in Switzerland. Before the outbreak of the corona pandemic, it was even CHF 20.2 billion. As Mikaela Shiffrin puts it, “It’s hard to see your business foundation melting away.” The previous business models in the industry are not only being called into question by disappearing glaciers. Heat and drought also north of the Alps, increased flood events and mudslides are becoming a danger for tourists and locals.
Another, economically more serious danger is the practically permanent lack of snow in middle altitudes. As early as 2011, climate models predicted an increase in the snow-reliability line by 200 to 250 meters by 2030. It is little consolation that Switzerland, with its many high-altitude winter sports destinations, has an advantage over neighboring countries. Numerous pre-alpine ski areas have to develop alternatives to their previous offerings, which have been a sure-fire success for decades.
Global warming makes us aware that tourism is more dependent on an intact nature than almost any other branch of the economy. Tourism itself contributes to endangering its own business basis. According to an Australian study, vacation travel by car, plane or ship contributes up to 8 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. Tourism is therefore not only a victim of climate change, but also a contributor.
Those responsible have recognized the need for action. The marketing organization Switzerland Tourism published a report in 2008 in which it made a “commitment”. The authors, among them well-known tourism experts, declare their willingness to contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The brochure goes on to say: “Tourism has countless opportunities to adapt to climate change on an ongoing basis and with foresight.” In fact, too little has happened since then, although the Federal Council also described climate change as “a key challenge for Swiss tourism” in its tourism strategy adopted in 2017.
In the meantime, there is hardly a holiday resort that does not advertise with the sustainability label and puts its efforts in favor of an intact nature and a careful use of natural resources in the best light. But for most tourism professionals, the criterion of sustainability is not one of the central sales arguments. This is all the more surprising as many guests no longer only pay attention to service and price, but also to how ecologically responsible the most beautiful days of the year are. They demand sustainable solutions in the area of buildings, energy and resource consumption, as well as innovative approaches to mobility.
It is unfortunate that tourism companies still rarely act as first movers when it comes to climate protection and sustainability. These are often mountain railways as well as hotel and catering companies that can give new impetus to an entire region or valley simply because of their size and market power. Anyone who demonstrates innovative spirit and drive today will be rewarded in the years to come.
The time has come to reposition Swiss tourism. Because climate change is not only a risk, it also offers an opportunity, and that means: summer. Switzerland Tourism has recognized this very well. His analysis from 2008 contains sentences like: “The pleasant climate in the mountains increases the attractiveness of the altitude in hot summers.” There is talk of mountain and summer freshness and a Mediterraneanization of the cities. It is postulated that bathing tourism represents an opportunity for some regions with lakes.
Because there are currently signs of a change in the travel behavior of many Central Europeans. Probably almost everyone has met friends or acquaintances in the last few days, whose main insight was: “I’ll never go south again in the summer holidays!” There was talk of persistent heat waves, uncomfortably warm seawater, plagues of jellyfish and constant power failures.
Now the anecdotes of frustrated returnees are a poor basis for diagnosing that travel behavior is currently changing significantly due to the consequences of climate change. In this respect, the study “A Mediterranean basin without a Mediterranean climate?” published in 2020 is much more well-founded. of the consulting firm McKinsey. The experts conclude that the times when summer holidays in Europe were automatically linked to the Mediterranean are over.
This is primarily due to the increase in days that are too hot with temperatures above 37 degrees. In southern Spain, Turkey and Egypt, the number of days perceived as uncomfortably hot will double from 30 today to around 60 by 2050. Switzerland is one of the countries that, according to McKinsey, should benefit from the changes. The summer season in this country tends to be longer. With the decrease in rainy days, the weather conditions for outdoor activities are improving.
The timing for a big shift also seems ideal because the hosts in all regions have proven that they “can do summer”. In the Corona years, when they were not allowed to quench their wanderlust, many Swiss discovered new facets of their homeland. Inland tourists were often not only impressed by the landscape, but also by the hospitality.
“Win back Europe”
The qualities discovered during this time must now be conveyed to those people who have not had the opportunity to discover Switzerland in the last two years. The idea for this already exists. It’s called “Win back Europe” and was launched by Switzerland Tourism before Corona and then stopped because of the pandemic. The campaign should be resumed quickly, as it is aimed at guests for whom Switzerland is easy to reach and who therefore leave a smaller ecological footprint. The SBB are going in the right direction, wanting to move from a purely commuter railway to a railway with many more leisure activities. The more day trippers switch from cars to trains, the better.
Many hotels, sports centers and other tourist facilities, especially in the mountain areas, are getting old and no longer meet the energy requirements of modern buildings. With the joint efforts of all those involved, it is important to remedy these deficits and make the infrastructure sustainable and climate-friendly.
Additional marketing and energetic renovations are necessary, but primarily those responsible for tourism in the individual destinations are in demand. You can advance tourism with bottom-up initiatives and good local ideas. The process towards more sustainability will not take place without painful decisions. Unprofitable ski areas will disappear or merge. Those who now focus on sustainable tourism have a good chance of surviving in this globally competitive market. But in order for this success to be sustainable and not literally swim away, it must be done without overexploiting one’s own resources.