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Mountain of sustainability.

The UN's "International Year of Mountains"' is the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the effect tourism has on some of the earth's most splendid peaks in the Alps. Eco-tourism is the buzz-word of the day, but even everyday tourism will have to change, its ways if mankind is to avoid destroying the very natural scenery it just can't seem to resist.

"Mountains," the British artist and critic John Ruskin once mused, "are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery."

Yet, as the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) points out during its declared "International Year of Mountains" (or IYM), the earth's splendid peaks--including the magnificent Alps--face the mortal danger of destruction by mankind. That could spell the beginning of the end for such rugged natural scenery as we know it.

Tourism Threats

Long favored by tourists since British aristocrats discovered the leisure--class pastime, the Alps may enjoy an edge--a "peace dividend"--over many ranges elsewhere. But they could share a common fate, warns the UNEP, if local Alpine stewards and their guests don't take care.

UNEP Mountain Program coordinator Andrei Iatsenia tells Swiss News that the problems of local mountaineers in the Alps can be dismissed "with a grain of salt." However, cautions the Geneva-based official, Swiss ecologists must still guard against the impact of unbridled ski-lift development and [CO.sub.2] exhaust from motorized traffic-especially trans-Alpine trucking. This, Iatsenia insists, is "the genuine problem."

The Mountains Call for Peace

Another UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, points out most mountain regions must survive an onslaught deadlier than pillaging by tourism. It notes that 23 of the 27 major armed conflicts in the world during 1999 were fought in mountain regions. These regions often house undernourished people.

Thus, at the IYM launch earlier this year, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf called on countries and UN agencies to make peace in these areas a priority by focusing on the root causes of conflict. "Seek out your unique role as peacemakers," Dr. Diouf urged UN agencies at the IYM launch in New York last December. "Once you establish that role, your role in sustainable development and conservation of mountains will also become clear."

Andrei latsenia says that the Alps serve as a role model of war-free prosperity to other more troubled ranges.

Alpine Eco System on Tender Hooks

Switzerland--along with Austria, Italy, and other countries--served as a key IYM planner even before Swiss voters finally opted to join the UN this spring. The nation occupied a seat on the International Year of Mountains Focus Group even as a non-voting observer.

Yet inside Switzerland, government agencies and NGOs actively shared a "homeland security" concern about the Alps' future. Their worries now zero in on mountain ecosystems, threatened by unsustainable forestry and farming practices.

The FAO's Dr. Diouf warned last year that nations need both peace and food security if they are to achieve their goal: developing mountain ecosystems sustainably. By this standard, Switzerland and its Alpine neighbors would seem to have an easy task. But "greens" here aren't so sure. And this label may cover many like Pontresina tourism director Markus Lergier, even if they usually vote for more traditional parties.

"I know that mountain ecology is fragile, and I want to preserve it," Lergier says, pointing out that his upscale resort would suffer greatly if the Alps lost their pristine appeal.

"That's why I consider myself a 'green' too," the transplanted Bernese tells Swiss News from a vantage point at the peak of Diavolezza overseeing the Bernina Group and other well-known peaks in the mountainous canton of Grisons.

Eco-tourism, as Lergier views it, means holding the line on the spread of vacation apartments springing up in Pontresina. This "tourist housing sprawl" trend also haunts neighboring St. Moritz and other resorts in the prospering Upper Engadine region. Though Pontresina and St. Moritz compete for hotel guests, they also cooperate closely on regional concerns and enjoy what Lergier calls a "friendly rivalry".

"St. Moritz calls itself 'the roof of the world'," he explains, "but we insist that Pontresina is 'the gateway to paradise." In any case, both resorts realize that "business as usual"-tourism that fails to preserve the Alpine ecology-could doom their futures.

Another Grisons resort spokesman, Davos Tourism director Armin Egger, also claims eco-tourism credentials. He wants to see visitors housed at farmhouses, not just hotels, so they can experience rural life intimately. Davos has almost 90 active farmers who live off the land, but the resort sharply restricts farms from renting rooms or apartment. Egger wants to change this.

"We should force this--it's a big market," he says. "People want to have it. Now it has become a kind of 'in fashion' again that you come back to the mountains and back to nature. You can show your children basic things like where milk comes from. I'm serious: we often hear that kids in the huge USA cities don't know where eggs or milk come from."

Davos--the largest town in the Alps--serves a largely German clientele and few English-speaking guests, but it urges those who arrive in cars to think twice about driving them about town. The resort employs a fleet of buses to move skiers and summer hikers along its famous promenade. In this way Egger sees Davos promoting eco-tourism by cutting down on [CO.sub.2] emissions.

A related issue has begun to stir at the mid-Grisons rail junction of Filisur where promoters have briefed villagers on a plan to develop a second regional park on an expanse bordering the Albula River between Tiefencastel and Bergun. The canton already houses Switzerland's only national park. Part of the proposed park area has provided a mountain animal refuge for more than a century.

Filisur farmer Wolfgang Schutz sees a controversy heating up in the near future as dwellers in the Albula valley weigh the concept of this new 600 [km.sup.2] Alpine nature park to be developed by private enterprise.

"The park doesn't call for a great investment," Schutz says. "It's mainly an undeveloped mountain area. But I already notice a fear that there's too much parkland involved-and too many park employees whose role isn't really clear."

The farmer expects Albula valley dwellers to start taking sides soon over the type of tourism they seek to attract if the park idea gains acceptance. Will it seek to reinvent folklore, vending it as "genuine postcard kitsch"? Or will it insist that villagers be themselves on a "take-us-or-leave-us" basis? Early returns show no trend.

A rising awareness of a mountain people's link to nature can be sensed. The "young Turks-a mix of Social Democrats and Greens who surface as bio-farmers and new-age professionals--seem turned off at the idea of "selling" a bogus folklore image. "I prefer 'sein' over 'schein'--settling for reality instead of posing," mountaineer Schutz says. "Let's just be ourselves. I think that's what we need to keep in mind."
Swiss Air: [CO.sub.2] Emission

Breakdown of [CO.sub.2] Emissions in Switzerland by Sector

Transport 34%
Domestic 26%
Industry 20%
Service Sector 13%
Other 7%

Trouble with intra-alpine and trans-alpine transport: [CO.sub.2]
emissions account for 83 per cent of all greenhouse gases in
Switzerland. In 1999 [CO.sup.2] emissions in Switzerland totalled 44.8
million tons, or 6.3 tons per capita. Swiss environmentalists say that a
decrease in commercial and personal traffic is necessary to avoid more
serious air pollution problems.


RELATED ARTICLE: Swiss Soil: Nearly [1m.sup.2] Gone Per Second

Around 50 per cent (1,375.58 [km.sup.2] of Switzerland's total settled area is occupied by buildings, while transport infrastruture accounts for 32 per cent and industrial sites 7.2 per cent. Parks and recreational areas occupy 5.7 per cent of the total land area and "special facilities" such as gravel works and landfill sites, 5.8 per cent. Since the early 1980s, settled land areas have increased at an average rate of roughly 0.86 [m.sup.2]per second, or a total of 327 [km.sup.2].
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:tourism in Switzerland
Author:Shepard, Lyn
Publication:Swiss News
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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