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Slippery Slope

The Alps, with their picturesque landscapes and diverse range of outdoor activities, are a major destination for tourists from all over the world. Each year around 120 million people visit the region to experience its natural beauty and participate in activities such as skiing, snowboarding, hiking and cycling. However, this level of tourism has a significant impact on the environment and the climate of the region.

Residents of the Alps are heavily dependent on tourists for their livelihoods, making it a delicate balancing act between addressing environmental concerns and preserving the interests of the tourism industry. Ski areas in particular have invested millions in efforts to maintain their operations and combat the effects of climate breakdown.

Sheep graze on what are ski slopes in winter. There are several reasons for this including land management and agricultural use. Grazing sheep can help maintain the grass on the slopes and prevent soil erosion.

Global heating, however, and the resulting lack of reliable snowfall is becoming a leading concern for the industry with ski areas becoming unsustainable due to declining winter tourism. Ski areas below 1,500 metres will be virtually without snow in the near future. This will have serious consequences for around a quarter of Alpine resorts, as many small local ski areas at lower elevations would become unviable, while the market share of bigger ones at higher elevations would increase.

The lack of snow is not only a problem for ski areas, but also for the local economy as a whole, which relies heavily on winter tourism. To address this issue, ski areas are exploring new technologies and infrastructure to improve snow reliability and diversifying their tourism options by attracting more summer visitors to the area. The Alps offer a variety of outdoor sports such as rock climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, as well as hiking and trekking trails. While tourism can bring economic benefits to the region by providing jobs and income for local businesses and communities, it also poses its own set of challenges and can have negative effects on the environment.

Mass tourism is vital for ski resorts and surrounding communities but it can also lead to a number of negative effects, including increased transport (the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe), pressure on local resources and infrastructure, and environmental degradation.

Building ski lifts at higher elevations is becoming increasingly common as resorts try to adapt to the effects of a changing climate. By moving skiing operations to higher, the resorts hope to maintain snow coverage and provide more consistent skiing conditions. However, building new ski lifts at higher elevations can have significant impacts on the landscape and nature in the surrounding areas. It often requires the clearing of trees and vegetation, the excavation of mountain slopes and the construction of new infrastructure, such as access roads and electrical transmission lines. The result of these activities can be soil erosion, deforestation and the fragmentation of wildlife habitats. Two major issues with alpine tourism are human intervention in nature and the increasing industrialisation of tourism. The large number of tourists visiting the area each year places a significant strain on the local environment and infrastructure. This can lead to overcrowding, pollution, and damage to natural habitats. The pressure on local resources such as water and energy can also cause strain on the sustainability of the region. Transportation and accommodation of tourists generates a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to the climate crisis.

It is crucial to find a balance between the economic benefits of tourism and the preservation of the environment and culture of the region. It is up to the tourism industry, governments and tourists themselves to work together to ensure the sustainable development and preservation of these areas for future generations to enjoy. Some ski areas are shifting towards sustainable practices such as renewable energy and eco-friendly infrastructure, and promoting sustainable tourism to attract responsible tourists. However, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will be enough to ensure the sustainability of the industry in the long term.

The climate crisis is a global problem that requires a global solution, but it is also a problem that is affecting the livelihoods of the people who live in these areas. The future of industrial tourism in the Alps is uncertain, but it is clear that the industry will need to adapt in order to survive.

The people working in the control room of the Paradiski area in the French Alps are responsible for a variety of tasks which include maintaining snow cannons and automation systems; repairing and servicing machine rooms, underground networks and water reservoirs; managing the production of artificial snow and monitoring its quality and distribution; troubleshooting technical issues, such as problems with cold water and electricity supply; as well as expanding and optimising snowmaking installations, networks, and processes to improve overall efficiency and effectiveness. Their role is crucial in ensuring that the ski area has sufficient snow coverage and optimal ski conditions, and they play a vital role in the success of the resort.

The control room is staffed by six full-time employees and one intern, and during the winter months, the ski area employs 600 people in various roles. These include ski lift operators, slope preparation personnel and various others who help make the resort run smoothly. In the summer, the number of employees drops to 150, as demand decreases.

Personal note: I have always been passionate about mountains, both in summer and winter. I am an avid winter sports enthusiast but also a lover of hiking and to be in the nature during summertime. I have visited many destinations in the Alps. I love the mountain life, the landscapes, cultures, and the people who live there. In recent years, I have increasingly asked myself: can this still be done? Am I not contributing to climate change? How much longer will skiing be around and what will be the tipping point? But if tourists stop coming what happens to the locals who depend on it? On the other hand, the impact of industrialisation and overcrowding on nature is also a big concern. If I come for peace and tranquillity, is it still enjoyable when the environment is affected? This photo series is inspired by these thoughts and the delicate balance between preserving the environment, climate change as a factor and the interests of tourism. It’s a sliding scale that needs to be navigated carefully.

Milan Schellingerhout, February 2023
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