The past year I have been blessed with people wanting to go to the Alps with our travel agency Thealps on all imaginable times of the year. They wanted to go skiing in November, visiting our highlands wine yards in May and then celebrating 50th and 60th birthdays by hiking with their big families both during springtime and autumn. Just to mention some.
I feel blessed because that gave me a way of spending lots of time in my small village at the foot of the Monterosa ridge, in Champoluc. I love to be there when there is snow so we can skin uphill or gently swish through the powder of the magnificent slopes in our huge ski system, Monterosa-ski. I love to be there when the snow is melting and the first smell of hay and earth fills my nose, hiking on the frozen trails behind our house in Palouettaz. I also love the sea of high grass and thousands of different flowers waving in the wind, before the local farmers cut the grass to make hay for foraging. Most of all I love to hike from late August to November, when the colors and the lights shift from summer to fall. And I love to chat with our neighbor Massimo, who always brings salad from his garden and eggs from his beloved hens.
It is nearly impossible to describe the magnificence of the mountains surrounding our still small and cozy villages in the valley where I have been since I was a child, the valley of Champoluc - Ayas. That beauty is made of extreme nature with glaciers and peaks of 4000 meters all around and of hard core human settlements that have been present in the valley for centuries, with their traditions and infrastructure, trails and houses, cows and agriculture and trade.
This is unbelievably beautiful and a pure healing of the soul and the body, say our guests when we meet here, no matter when during the year.
So, I know it is very important to protect this valley’s original spirit, which we can do only by showing it to others and making it more accessible all year round to people coming on holidays. We need to develop what is necessary for that aim, as for example the tourist offer of the villages with more open hotels and restaurants and shops in all seasons, fixing a concierge service for all empty private owned apartments and villas - my Swedish guests ask me often why all houses are closed and dead like that, when they go through the main street of Champoluc.
To open the valley for more people on holidays must not mean exploitation.
However in Champoluc/Ayas we have an issue around a new ski-lift system to be built in the Cime Bianche valley.
Ski tourism, which we also promote through Thealps’ travel agency, rules today the whole area around Monterosa, with the well extended lift systems of Cervinia, Zermatt and Monterosa-Ski, requiring a today nearly reckless amount of water resources for the aim of snow production. Amazing that climate changes seem still to be a science fiction dream in the mind of tourism planner, no matter that the snow will be gone in short. They seem to reason that, to develop tourism in the Alps, the only way is to build bigger ski-lift systems.
So, at least during the last ten years, there has been this idea of connecting the two lift systems of Monterosa-Ski and Cervinia/Zermatt, making this the second or third biggest ski area in the world by more than 800 km of prepared ski slopes, and making it theoretically possible to go on for several days without taking off your skis. The latest construction project, which has been approved by the Aosta Valley region and the community in the valley of Champoluc, tells of a system of connecting lifts to be built in the Cime Bianche valley, consequently destroying its landscape.
Cime Bianche is one of the last wild areas in an already hard exploited alpine environment, and I want to preserve it for the future. The special highland landscape, surrounded by steep rocky walls and glaciers with lots of swamp terrain, torrents and lakes and consequently the animals and the plants that live here, make this valley a perfect concentration of alpine biodiversity. Something that we want to preserve and show to more people.
What I also want to preserve for the future is the nearly 1000 yearlong human history of this 10 km of gentle uphill slopes, starting at the tiny village of Saint Jacques, once upon a time a lively market place, to the lakes and the pass of Cime Bianche, linking Champoluc to Cervinia and Zermatt. This valley has for centuries been used by people for farming and as one of the most important trading routes of Europe for goods like salt and silk. We left pretty smooth traces of ourselves before modern times, the trails and the small buildings that still witness the footprint of humans, in perfect harmony with the environment.
To build a new lift in an untouched valley in the Monterosa is good only for the ski industry. Tourism in the mountains wintertime is today a huge industry with high costs and not always as good exits. During the last few decades of 1900 it has exploded into the actual form. We have built copies of our concrete cities in the mountains. We travel to them by plane and by car on the road systems of the Alps. We have built a massif infrastructure of lift systems, pists, roads and artificial snow making devices. To do this, we have changed the shape of valleys and cut down forests, leaving scars in the vulnerable environment, gaping wide open during the summer and the spring and the autumn. We have indeed attracted lots of people to the Alps, but the skiing carousel is on for more or less three months per year. What are we doing the rest of the year?
If the climate is going towards hot and not cold, why should we invest more in skiing on snow? Because, in a short perspective, it seems to be the only profitable tourism in the Alps. Hotel owners complain that they do not have enough guests the other part of the year and they close.
But in a broader perspective we need to change our views.
I want to go to the mountains with my guests all seasons of the year and I want to be in the nature of the mountains and not in small concrete infrastructures. And I am definitely not alone about this. The same want MT-bikers, trail runners, hikers and climbers, as well as skiers, tour skiers and cross country skiers, but also people who only come here to breathe fresh air and enjoy the beauty of the mountains, with their spectacular shift of heights, colors, lights and views.
I want a tourism planning in the Alps that considers a year round perspective.
Only by preserving the natural and historical specificity of the region it will be possible to attract people for recreation and rest here all year round, and as a consequence of this also making it possible for people to work and live in the Alps.
A new study of what tourists want for their winter vacations, published at the Skipass fair hold in Rimini (sic!) at the end of October, shows that the majority wants a snow covered cozy mountain village to escape to from their grey cities of concrete. What are we going to do now? Probably, following this trend, and the climate changes we see, even if we don’t want to recognize it, we need to put snow making machines in the middle of the villages too, not only on the slopes.
On the other hand I believe that there is a metaphor of the white snow as something clean and pure, in opposition to the grey as a metaphor for city life’s stress and chaos. The nature of the mountains is clean and pure as long as we don’t destroy it making it a copy of the city. I am sure we need the wilderness of the Cime Bianche valley, and all other still wild areas in the Alps, because they represent for us, either we are only tourists or inhabitants here, one of our few remaining ways to protect our emotional and physical health. And that we can do if we develop our tourism to be more sustainable and yearlong.
My suggestion is to build a natural and historical park in the Monterosa area, stretching between Italy and Switzerland over the glaciers, showing the incredible biodiversity of the area, making it a place for study of the glaciers and how to protect them from disappearing. Here we could also learn about the ancient civilization of the Walser, who could make a living in these extreme landscape by learning to be self-sufficient long periods of the year.
Monterosa, this unique place that contains all that is particular and specific for the big European mountains could this way be the last remaining heritage in the Alps. In the broader perspective very much more profitable for tourism planning than just another lift.