Tourism and Sustainability in the Alps – An In-Depth Guide

This overview of tourism and sustainability in the Alps looks at the environmental impact of visitors to central Europe, and beneficial projects and practices.

By Marina Helene Aschaber from

When we think of snow capped summits, green pastures with cows freely grazing on them, crystal clear mountain streams and cute little towns in the alps, we imagine a picture-perfect world in Europe. Yet, to attain sustainability in our times, can also be a challenge to those countries, which we consider a perfect example of preservation in this world.

This post examines various regions in the DACH countries, which include Germany (D for Deutschland), Austria and Switzerland (CH for Confoederatio Helvetica), and compares their challenges and the things that have been done so far. This topic will encompass sustainability as a broad topic, including environmental issues, with its social and economic effects.

Further Reading:

An Introduction to Sustainability in the Alps

Switzerland seems to be the pioneer in this field. Known as one of the most expensive countries to live in, Switzerland surely ticks the marks for all nature lovers. Its governance has been making efforts for decades towards a much more sustainable future.

The small country has one of the best train networks in Europe. Due to its geographical location, and the pace of political and economic development over the centuries, Switzerland has emerged as an innovative problem solver. Mountainous areas to the south of the country didn’t stop them from building out the train network. Tunnels were built not only for road traffic, but also to expand the train network, so to connect even the most remote areas to all major cities.

Train wagons are modern double-deckers, that are built for accessibility in mind. The SBB is always on time, services small stations regularly and the tickets are affordable, even for non-Swiss residents.

Thanks to this foresight and technical innovation, they have been able to build railways literally over mountains. Take for example the Berner Oberland, known as the Bernese highlands. Popularized by picture-perfect images and international movies, the area has been attracting hundred thousand visitors yearly. Especially the valley of 72 waterfalls, Lauterbrunnen, has been a magnet for seekers of stunning natural views.

The Effect of Tourism in the Alps

Visitors from all over the world flock to the summer and winter sports resorts, which include, the village of Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Mürren and Gimmelwald. The villages, Wengen, Mürren and Gimmelwald are situated on a cliff formation at about 300 meters altitude above Lauterbrunnen in the valley.

Due to their unique location, they have been made accessible via a well-serviced local train and cable car network. These hyper touristic villages are completely car-free! The effects are very much visible, as one takes a relaxed stroll through the alpine boroughs.

A train with greenery behind
Lauterbrunnen Cogwheel Train
Tourism and Sustainability in the Alps - Small cabins on rolling green hillsides in the mountains
View from Wengen

CO2 pollution levels could have been exceedingly higher if tourists were to access the area with their private cars. Yet, today, instead, you don’t have to worry about traffic jams clogging the village centers. Everybody, even the most privileged, gets to travel to the upscale resort Wengen, the same way, via the iconic yellow and green Wengeneralpbahn cogwheel train.

This has given the locals a lot of fresh air to breathe, and scarce space in the alps has been utilized in the best way possible.

Despite that, visitor numbers have been increasing constantly over the years, to the delight of those who profit from tourism. Only steep nightly prices, higher than the regular Swiss average, have been deterring non-wealthy visitors from coming to the beautiful Lauterbrunnen valley. Nonetheless, hotels have been built and places have been turned into vacation rentals. The fear that these places turn into ghost villages is very real and locals that do not directly benefit from over tourism, take the brunt.

These places tend to be exceedingly busy, thanks to an excess of tourists during the peak season in July and August, as well as in December and January. But, it is plainly visible that younger locals have been moving out from the area because they cannot afford the living expenses in the region. While their parents built homes, it is now a thing of the past, as owning a house is considered a luxury at this point. A solution to this problem won’t manifest itself so soon.

This whole debate intensifies in the winter sports resorts as conservation activists point out the damage done to mountain slopes. Downhill skiing slopes are heavily prepared with artificial snow to tackle the ever warmer and late coming winters. Fortunately, the region has been blessed with large natural water reserves to feed the winter tourism needs.

Yet, the question remains if multinational skiing resorts will be able to justify themselves in a time when water is a commodity in various countries around the world.

Environmental Impacts

Yet, the glass is half full considering the authorities try to foster natural diversity. The alpine economy has long been relying on local animal farming. Small farms keep about 20 to 30 cows or sheep as well as other animals such as pigs, chicken, and ducks.

The manure that comes together is used as a liquified natural fertilizer on fields across the alps. Manure contains nitrogen which stimulates field growth, which in turn is cut to serve as feeding material for livestock throughout the year.

This is often promoted by farmer’s alliances as a “green” and sustainable way to fertilize fields, but it comes with a whole set of problems.

Liquid dung can pollute underground water reserves, and it contains phosphor, which in turn pollutes lakes and is a prime reason for the death of fish. Alpine plant diversity is also heavily affected by this practice, and therefore it is more and more evident that prestigious alpine meadows lack on variety. An increasing number of plants are added to the ever-growing list of endangered species.

Mountain, green grasslands, and many alpine houses
Mürren, in the Bernese Highlands of Switzerland

Certain communities in the Lauterbrunnen valley have taken these concerns serious, and alpine pastures are not covered with liquid manure at certain heights. Although, this mainly accounted for high elevation areas across the alps, and so the fields in Mürren have been left alone and cows are moving about freely in the area.

The aim is to take nature conservation serious and to fight the dying of plant variety, so to preserve the unique eco sphere for future generations. Let’s hope this thought process will be adopted in the future in the valleys as well.

The Situation in Nature Reserves

Natural reserves in the alps serve as a place for animals and plants to thrive and live undisturbed. The Berchtesgaden national park in Germany, close to the Austrian border, makes for a fine example.

The park was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1990, which means it’s a learning place for sustainable development. Its goal is to not only protect and preserve, but to also observe and learn from. Still, the park has also been welcoming visitors and therefore tourism has been thriving in this stunning region.

The natural harmony is only threatened by over tourism during peak travel seasons, which at the same time helps to finance the conservation of the area.

A harbour in the mountains
Berchtesgaden National Park
A vintage building in the alps
Berchtesgaden National Park

Another national park in this part of the world is the national park Hohetauern in Austria. This park welcomes visitors who come to see Austria’s highest mountain, the Großglockner.

The Großglockner high alpine road takes visitors to a viewing platform with a view of the diminishing Pasterze glacier. Park maintenance has been financed with the expensive toll road fees, and so the authorities hope to bring people closer to nature and to educate them better about our natural surrounding.

Time alone will tell if this whole endeavor is successful.

Cyan blue glacier under a blue sky
Pasterze Glacier

The Effect of Skiing Tourism

Many Austrians are tied to the local tourism industry, directly or indirectly, and this conflict of interest has been voiced multiple times over the decades. Glaciers have been receding, but glacier skiing tourism is unfortunately still a thing in 2023. Traffic jams have only increased in the alps, where space is a commodity and where locals can’t afford to live anymore.

One prime example is the ski resort of Kitzbühel in the Tyrol alps. The upscale ski resort has been a place where jet-setters invest in properties.

This has been driving the real estate prices up. The result is a lack of affordable housing in this particular rural area in Austria, which is considered one of the most expensive per square meter in Austria. There is no end to this, as the municipalities’ list has been filling up with locals seeking a small apartment to live in.

The current waiting time to get a chance to get affordable housing is 8 years and affordable housing means a 65 m2 flat priced at EUR 400000. Solving this conundrum will take the state a lot of effort, especially with the soaring inflation rates in Austria.

Skiers spread out across a ski field
Kitzbühel Ski Resort

The flip side is that the Austrian state administration has been working on local waste management and reduction. Separating waste has long been ingrained and the tourism industry, in conjunction with waste management, has been managed well enough so far.

Private people create compost with organic waste, which is then reused in their gardens. But also special deals are created in towns with farmers who collect organic waste, which is then turned into dry and rich soil. So, every time you see balcony flowers at a hotel in Austria, you will know that the flowers get to feed on locally made humus manure.

The Austrian government has also been promoting renovations of buildings, and it has been offering subsidies for isolation upgrades and for getting renewable energy-efficient sources, such as solar powdered photovoltaic panels. District heating has been implemented and public spas and hotels are heated with leftover heat from factories. This approach shall help take sustainability to the next level.

The Future of Tourism and Sustainability in the Alps

In conclusion, nature, and people should be able to coexist in the alps. Efforts have been made at the governance and on the individuals’ level. Yet, the question remains if it has been enough to tackle all angles and social economical, as well as environmental, pain points.

The hope is that problems are addressed with permanent solutions, and that they should not be transferred to other areas in the world, or that they are ignored or swept under the rug. Sensible education and case by case situations should be studied, and talking openly about issues should be the norm.

Though topics, such as privatization of alpine waters and infrastructure management, will bring up more questions and debates. Yet, the European alps are moving towards a more sustainable and equitable future.