Bled Castle SmallAt the end of May 2018, 200 politicians, researchers, activists, and government representatives came together in Bled, Slovenia to discuss ‘Alpine Tourism: Quality of Life Inclusive’ at the joint conference of CIPRA International and the Alliance in the Alps. Among them was MRI SLC member Andreas Muhar. We spoke to him to get his take on this event.

Situated on the edge of a tranquil lake and in the shadow of an imposing 11th century castle, Bled, Slovenia is an idyllic location for a conference – and attracts tourists from all over the world. But as the conference ‘Alpine Tourism: Quality of Life Inclusive’ highlighted, this influx of people creates challenges as well as opportunities.

“In many parts of the Alps, the tourism sector is the most important economic player,” says Andreas Muhar, MRI SLC Member and professor at the Institute of Landscape Development, Recreation, and Conservation Planning at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna. “It is a labor-intensive industry, and therefore provides many employment opportunities for rural populations.” And it is not only those working in traditional tourism industry areas, such as hotels and restaurants, that benefit. “There are synergies between tourism and agriculture, for example, as tourism relies on the existence of traditional cultural landscapes, and many agri-environmental programs specifically aim to support alpine farming.”

A challenge to carrying capacity
The contribution of tourism is not only positive however, as Muhar explains. “Tourism has dominated regional development processes – and of course to some extent marginalized other aspects. In particular, the quality of life in heavily-visited destinations has been affected. The term ‘overtourism’ was mentioned frequently during the conference: residents in iconic destinations, such as Bled itself, suffer from the level of visitors and sometimes even start campaigning against it. But defining the social carrying capacity of a destination is very difficult, and it is even more difficult to develop management measures.”

Andreas MuharThe conference sought to go some way towards to addressing these issues, highlighting the risks posed by tourism and exploring how sustainable tourism can contribute to the quality of life of people living in Alpine areas. In doing so, it also recognized that a change in approach may be required.

“Debates about tourism usually circle around a dichotomy between ‘tourists’ and ‘residents.’ However, during the conference it became clear that this does not work anymore,” Muhar says. “People employed in the tourism sector in the Alps today were often not born there, and have instead migrated from elsewhere or come as seasonal workers. Their needs and perspectives are quite different to those who have always lived in the destination. And tourists can be day-trippers who only visit a destination once in their lifetime, or be regular visitors who might know the location better than some locals and might also have a particular place attachment.”

This diversity also applies to second home owners, Muhar stresses. “These are probably the ‘most unwanted’ actor group in the Alps, yet they are not sufficiently researched in terms of their understanding of and relationship to the region. Debates about tourism need to acknowledge this diversity of actor groups in order to avoid solutions based on stereotypical conflict perceptions.”

Striking a balance
So where do we go from here? At the end of the conference, a twelve step plan was unveiled with the aim of supporting Alpine tourist destinations to improve local quality of life.

“Of course, we cannot expect that a single conference can solve all these issues immediately,” says Muhar. “But these steps are grouped around the principles of understanding nature protection as a foundation for tourism, improving regional value chains, providing better opportunities for locals in the housing and the labor market, balancing and integrating demands of local residents and visitors, and improving cooperation between destinations.”

Perhaps then these twelve steps could help flip the tourism coin in favour of the positives, paving the way towards a more sustainable tourism future for Alpine regions.

‘Twelve Steps to Improve the Quality of Life in Alpine Destinations’ can be downloaded from the CIPRA website (German only).

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