Is skiing going downhill?

European ski resorts are increasingly worried about the impact of climate change, as Simon Birch reports from the French Alps


Eric Fournier is a worried man. As mayor of the French town of Chamonix that sits at the very foot of Mont Blanc, Europe’s biggest mountain, Fournier can literally see his town’s economic future melting away. “We can watch the glaciers on Mont Blanc retreating with our own eyes,” says Fournier.

And Fournier has every reason to be worried. Like many alpine resorts which depend upon tourism, especially the rich pickings that skiing provides, the chronic lack of snow earlier this winter has given Chamonix the jitters and sent alarm bells ringing right across the Alps.

For whilst environmental groups warn that climate change is something that will happen in the future, or is being felt far away in the Arctic, for Fournier, the impact of global warming is happening right on his doorstep.
“Here climate change is very obvious,” says Fournier bluntly.


Is time running out for skiiing in the French Alps

© Chamonix Tourist Office


Rising to the challenege

In response to the impact of climate change, in 2010 Chamonix became one of the first Alpine resorts to launch its own pioneering climate and energy action plan with the target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 from a 2010 baseline.

With an ambitious programme of energy-saving projects and an extensive public transport system, the centrepiece of which is a train that’s free for tourists, Chamonix is now emerging as the frontrunner in the fightback against climate change in the Alps.

In recognition of its groundbreaking environmental work, Chamonix has become one of only three ski resorts in the Alps to be awarded the Flocon Vert – the green snowflake – a label certifying sustainability run by Mountain Riders, a French-based group that campaigns for a more sustainable winter-sports industry.

There are over 50 different labels currently available for mountain-based resorts and hotels right across Europe and they vary enormously in both what they measure and the scale and scope of qualifying businesses.

The key benefit of these different labelling schemes is that businesses which have been awarded a label have a marketing advantage over their competitors.
“We’ve surveyed tour operators and 62% say that they would be more likely to be interested in a destination if it carried a sustainable or environmental label,” says Anne Dorte Carlson who manages the Sustainable Destination Norway label.

“We believe that in the future this will give us a competitive advantage.”


Enhanced business profile

The commercial benefits of an environmental label have been confirmed by TripAdvisor, a colossus in the global tourist industry which is now rolling out  its Green Leaders programme in Europe having launched the scheme in North America in 2013.

“The Green Leaders programme is designed to help travellers book a greener trip by recognising hotels and B&Bs that engage in environmentally friendly practices ranging from recycling to  energy use,” says Tom Breckwoldt from TripAdvisor.

“Qualifying properties are then marked with a badge on their TripAdvisor home page.”
Significantly, Breckwoldt revealed that TripAdvisor’s own research has found that Green Leader businesses are 20% more likely to be booked compared with those  that haven’t signed up to the free scheme.

With more than 300 million people using TripAdvisor every month, many believe that this new initiative has the potential to be a game changer in the push for more sustainable development in
mountain regions.

“Small groups such as Mountain Riders are doing great work but they don’t reach the majority of people,” says Dr. Tobias Luthe from the Sustainable Mountain Tourism Alliance (SMTA), a global network of groups and organisations working for sustainability in Alpine tourism, which has just been launched in Switzerland.

“TripAdvisor is a very powerful way of reaching a massive audience and if they implemented a combination of tools recommended by the SMTA then this could be really exciting.”

Back in Chamonix, Eric Fournier is in no doubt about the importance of ensuring that his town heads in a more sustainable direction. “There is no alternative for a resort like Chamonix but to embrace sustainable development and be totally committed to the environment,” says Fournier.
“The Alps are the lifeblood of our town.”