Responsible tourism in Switzerland

Staying longer, enjoying maximum relaxation in natural settings and experiencing local culture in authentic ways – hey, that’s responsible tourism in a nutshell. It’s also the ethos of ‘Swisstainable’, Switzerland’s take on sustainable travel and, to be fair, they’ve earned a catchphrase. Switzerland has a notoriously good public rail network, some of the cleanest water and air in Europe, and 18 national parks, between them spanning an eighth of the land area. What’s more, some 30 percent (and rising) of Switzerland remains covered in forest.

So all is going swimmingly with the Swisstainability, right? Well, not entirely. While there are many sustainable tourism practises in Switzerland so progressive that they deserve the last piece of Toblerone, behind the picture-postcard image of alpine landscapes and charming traditional villages, there is trouble looming too. We’re talking controversial cable car schemes and the growing threat of overtourism. And the biggest worry of all, of course: the climate crisis and its inevitable effects on one of Europe’s most renowned destinations for winter sports.

How will climate change affect holidays in Switzerland?

In Switzerland they call it ‘white gold’. Snow, or rather the winter tourism that comes with it, generates about $5.7 billion annually, or one percent of overall Swiss GDP – a far higher percentage, of course, in mountain regions. So although Switzerland is likely to fare a bit better than other alpine countries in terms of snow cover, a warming climate will still have a significant impact on holidays here.

The future of winter sport holidays in Switzerland

One thing we can be pretty certain that the future holds for winter sports holidays in Switzerland is that there will be fewer of them, they will be more expensive, and the season will be shorter. And the reason for all of that is: there will be less snow. Much less. In 30 years there will be hardly any resorts able to proudly declare themselves ‘snow-sure’.

In fact many resorts already don’t get nearly enough snow, and the only reason they can offer skiing and snowboarding is because they use snow cannons to coat the pistes overnight. These cannons are incredibly bad for the environment, using massive quantities of water, and they’re costly too, which bumps up the price of a holiday.

Eventually the massive environmental costs of reproducing snow artificially will become too controversial to ignore. And as snow cover in the Swiss Alps diminishes, particularly at lower levels, there will be more competition for accommodation in those resorts that still get sufficient snow.

Glacier melt is another cause of shrinking ski areas, and it brings with it greater risk of landslides, rockfall and avalanches too, which puts visitors in winter and summer alike at greater risk. Water meanwhile – already a precious resource in many alpine areas – will become scarcer, which will prompt accommodation to press their guests to use less.

Environmentally-friendly winter sports

Switzerland will need to put more of a focus on winter activities that are far less-damaging to the environment, snowshoeing and winter walking among them. These don’t require groomed pistes that crush vegetation, they don’t use up vast reservoirs of water every season, and they leave little evidence you’ve been there besides tracks in the snow.

Guides on trips of this kind aren’t there simply to lead the way. Often living in the local area themselves, they ensure you don’t accidentally stray into sensitive habitat, and explain how these landscapes are being permanently reshaped by a warming climate. Plus, you see beautiful parts of the Swiss Alps that skiers miss completely.

What you can do

Ultimately, the most effective thing any of us can do when it comes to fighting climate change and biodiversity loss is use our voices, and our time, wisely. Vote for politicians that take these issues seriously. And get involved with activism and campaigning, locally and nationally, whenever you can.

Stop downhill skiing and snowboarding. Instead, enjoy these beautiful wintery landscapes in a more responsible and satisfying way. Winter activity holidays avoid glitzy big resorts in favour of smaller communities where you can walk, snowshoe and cross-country ski to your heart’s content.

The climate crisis is caused by burning fossil fuels. Flying, especially short haul, is the most carbon-intensive form of public transport. The bottom line is that we need to fly less. Happily, it’s easy enough to get to Switzerland by train – it’s just eight hours from Zurich to London which, when you factor in check-in times and security at airports, is not much slower than flying, and is also city centre to city centre. Driving is the next best option, and takes only a few more hours than going by train.

People & culture

Is tourism sustainable in Switzerland?

In May 2019, a huge tour group numbering 12,000 in total arrived in Switzerland on a work incentive trip. The group was so large that even when broken down into three separate batches, the organisers still needed to coordinate with police and local authorities to minimise disruption.

The size of the group might be mercifully rare, but the situation is also symptomatic of Switzerland’s tourism conundrum. One consequence of a rapidly warming world is that many traditional winter activities such as skiing are threatened, as resorts at lower altitudes begin to regularly see less snow. With winter tourism becoming more unstable and less profitable, new avenues for revenue such as the work incentive trip mentioned above will be needed in what is a key sector for the Swiss economy, one that generates almost three percent of GDP.

And although Switzerland is not yet feeling the strain of overtourism that many other European destinations are struggling with, certain locations such as the majestic Rhine Falls, the largest waterfall on the continent, can get very busy during peak summer season.

The spectre of overtourism

Tourism in the Swiss Alps has been in decline for some years, driven by numerous factors, not least by a strong Swiss franc putting people off in favour of less expensive destinations. But there is one area of the market that is seeing significant growth, and that is visitors from Asia, specifically China. Asian tour groups’ interest in the iconic Switzerland scenery has exploded, not without controversy, but certainly very successfully.

Yet with a rapid surge in growth comes a requirement for new roads, new large hotels and resorts, new parking areas for coaches, and substantially increased pressure on the environment and local communities not used to this level of tourism.

Irresponsible tourism has been causing problems in Switzerland for years, long before large tour groups started to come in any numbers. But today Switzerland is very clearly walking a tightrope between the need for more visitors and the risks of mass tourism and its effects on the environment and culture. The need for a responsible approach to tourism, shifting focus to less-visited areas to ease the pressure on the over-visited, and ensuring that tourism numbers are sustainable, couldn’t be any clearer.

Helping small rural communities survive

Switzerland may be 70 percent mountains, but most Swiss people choose to live on the flat bits instead, in and around cities where there is a greater chance of employment. Some rural communities are at risk of disappearing altogether as people leave to find jobs elsewhere. Swiss Mountain Aid is a charitable foundation that, since 1943, has been funding projects in the mountains to boost employment opportunities and help small villages to survive.

One such project is La Gagygnole, a distillery business set up by three nature-loving brothers in the village of Souboz. They harvest plants and seeds from the area to use in their award-wining gin and vodka, with the overall plan being to hire more local people and help to improve the regional economy.

Many of the projects Swiss Mountain Aid involves itself in focus on tourism, and when you travel with a responsible tour operator you’ll usually stay in locally owned accommodation throughout. Your hosts will also point you in the direction of locally run restaurants, and when your trip uses guides or transfers, you can be confident that they too will be drawn from the local community when possible. That means more jobs for local people, more money staying in rural economies, and more authentic cultural interactions too, as you’re in constant contact with people who live in these communities.

What you can do
If you’re planning a holiday in the Swiss Alps then consider avoiding peak season (the summer months of July and August) and winter holidays (late December, mid-February and Easter) in the most well-known resorts and destinations. There are many areas that see relatively few visitors and yet have much to offer both in terms of scenery and activities. Here, you’ll find a more relaxed take on Switzerland.

Whether you love a gin cocktail, or you want to recreate an authentic Swiss cheese fondue back home, take every chance you can get to shop locally. As more and more mountain villages lose income from a declining winter sports industry it is likely that residents, particularly younger people, will leave to find better opportunities elsewhere. Supporting small businesses while on holiday helps create jobs and keep communities together.

Wildlife & environment issues in Switzerland

Cable cars & crystals

A cable car ride with a difference has opened on the Matterhorn, one of the highest mountains in Switzerland. Four of its cars are gilded with thousands of Swarovski crystals, complimented by glass floor panels that defog themselves automatically as they pass over the glacier. The ride from Zermatt up to Europe’s highest cable car station is an excessively gaudy invention, and one that has already proved divisive between commercial interests and those who prefer their natural settings a bit more, well, natural.

But now a new phase of the infrastructure project is under construction, which will be aimed at Chinese tourists expressly, who number 1.5 million annually. It will make it possible to get from Zermatt in Switzerland to Italy in an hour without skis – and again, there will be a handful of crystal-clad cabins. The concept was met with grassroots resistance from environmentalists, but a compromise has now been struck with no new towers being built and no further construction on the Matterhorn.

A gondola past the infamously treacherous north face of the Eiger, in the Jungfrau region, has proved similarly controversial. It is likely to add thousands more annual visitors to the village of Grindelwald which already sees plenty, while there is also a shopping outlet at the Eiger Express cableway centre. What need is there for a shopping outlet at a cableway centre?

What you can do
Making mountain landscapes more accessible for everyone regardless of wealth, fitness level and abilities is a great thing of course. The issue is the way it’s handled. Mass tourism has no place in such fragile environments and can only lead to problems.

You don’t need to ride on one of these busy, gaudy cable cars to appreciate stunning views when in the Swiss Alps. Responsible tour operators avoid the busier areas and routes, seeking out lesser-visited areas where you can enjoy untrammelled panoramas without the need to queue up first.

Winter sports: how will the climate crisis affect Switzerland?

The impacts of climate change in Switzerland are going to be vast and varied, and many remain difficult to predict. One thing we can be pretty sure of, however, is that formerly snow-sure ski resorts are now becoming much less sure. As snow cover in the Swiss Alps diminishes, particularly at lower levels, the financial viability of the winter sports industry in Switzerland will become increasingly unsteady.

Likely adaption strategies include more use of environmentally damaging snow cannon (one of the main reasons why we rarely sell holidays that feature downhill skiing) and the building of more resorts and pistes at still higher altitudes – hardly a sustainable long-term approach.

Warmer winters will also mean glaciers receding further and melting snow packs, which significantly increase the risk of flooding, as well as avalanches and rockfalls, putting winter sports enthusiasts at greater risk in many areas.

How is biodiversity protected in the Swiss Alps?

The Swiss system of government regularly requires citizens to take part in referendums on important matters, with nature and biodiversity a regular subject. Recently, a proposal to make it easier to hunt wolves was (narrowly) rejected.

A crisis in biodiversity is closely linked with the climate crisis. In Switzerland, a consequence of rising temperatures is that plant species that previously would have struggled to survive at higher altitudes are now finding it easier to survive, competing for space and resources with more traditional Alpine flora. Changing ecosystems will mean that many animals will also need to adapt to quickly changing environments.

What you can do
Our guide to low carbon travel explores the need for travellers and the tourism industry alike to make holidays more sustainable. The bottom line: one of the most significant steps any of us can take is committing to flying less. For many places and types of holiday that’s not realistic, but for Switzerland, it certainly is for European travellers.

You can get to Zurich from London by train easily and quite quickly (around eight hours) by train which, when you factor in check-in times and security at airports, is not much slower than flying, and is also city centre to city centre. An hour or so more, and you can be in the Swiss Alps enjoying some absolutely staggering views from the windows.

Driving is the next best option, and takes only a few more hours than going by train. Once you’re in resort, the quality and quantity of public transport available to you (plus great value travel passes covering buses, trains and boats) means you may not need to get back in the car again until it’s time to go home again.

Responsible tourism tips in Switzerland

Downhill skiing is terrible for nature, but we’re not against all forms of skiing. Cross country skiing has a far lower impact on the environment and if you’re on a winter multi activity holiday in Switzerland, it’s just one of several options open to you. Other winter sports available range from snowshoeing (easier than it might look!) to husky sledding and glacier trekking wearing crampons. All of which are just as much fun as skiing, in our opinion. Whenever you’re out and about in Switzerland, stick to marked trails and pistes. Not only will you be safer – especially in the mountains – but it also means you won’t be damaging any fragile plants. Switzerland has the densest rail network in the world. That means that Switzerland is incredibly well-connected and you can very easily get around without a car. Which is handy, as a lot of Swiss winter resorts are entirely car-free. And if you needed another reason why the Swiss rail network is one we should all be looking at enviously, it’s 90 percent powered by renewable energy, as are many cable cars. In line with ‘Swisstainability’, many accommodations in Switzerland are big into going green, from rainwater harvesting to growing their own organic food and cutting plastic. Learn about what your hotel or B&B is doing to reduce its environmental footprint. Switzerland boasts some of the highest water quality in the world. There are public drinking fountains all over the place, especially in cities – there are some 1,200 in Zurich alone – but also in the countryside. Pack a reusable water bottle and dehydration will be a stranger. One of the easiest (and most satisfying) ways to cut the carbon footprint of a holiday is to eat locally produced food whenever you can. That’s easy in Switzerland, where there’s a large range of organic produce available and many farm shops in the countryside.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Noel Reynolds] [The spectre of overtourism: Richard Allaway] [Winter sports: Roman Boed]