Magazine article Geographical

White Mountain, Green Tourism

Magazine article Geographical

White Mountain, Green Tourism

Article excerpt

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Under the shadow of Mont Blanc, the French Alpine town of Chamonix has been a magnet for tourists since the 18th century--its glaciers, mountains and ski slopes attracting visitors all year round. But as the combined effects of tourism and climate change begin to put pressure on the surrounding environment, the local authorities have decided to act.

To the northwest is the Aiguilles Rouges massif, its craggy reddish peaks and cobalt-blue lakes shimmering in the summer sun. To the southeast are the permanently white peaks of the Mont Blanc range, complete with glaciers winding with intent down the slopes and the eponymous mountain itself--at 4,810 metres, the highest in the Alps. It's a classic Alpine environment, but one that's under increasing strain from the hustle and bustle of human activity.

Nestled in the 17-kilometre-long glacial valley between these two walls of towering granite is the commune of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the birthplace of Alpine tourism. It sits at 1,035 metres above sea level in the Haute-Savoie department in southeastern France, where the borders of France, Switzerland and Italy converge.

Tourism is Chamonix's lifeblood. The valley has lured travellers ever since it was 'discovered' in 1741 by Britons Richard Pococke and William Windham. In 1786, Mont Blanc's summit was finally reached, by French doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard and guide Jacques Balmat, giving birth to the sport of alpinism, with Chamonix at its centre. In 1924, it hosted the inaugural Winter Olympics, and the cable cars and gondola lifts that were built in the years that followed made the ski slopes accessible to all.

Today, Chamonix retains a rustic Alpine charm, but is now very much a modern town, connected to the outside world via the Mont Blanc "Funnel and a perpetually busy highway network. It hosts up to 60,000 visitors at a time during the ski season, and climbers, hikers and extreme sports enthusiasts swarm here in the summer in even greater numbers, swelling the town's population to 100,000. It's the third most visited natural site in the world, according to Chamonix's Office de Tourisme, and last year, it clocked up 5.2 million visitor bed nights--all this in a town with fewer than 10,000 permanent inhabitants.

ALPINE AGENDA

This influx has put the local environment under severe pressure. Faced with the dilemma of environment versus tourism, the authorities in the valley have decided to take action.

At a local level, Chamonix-MontBlanc and the three other communes that make up the valley--Les Houches, Servoz and Vallorcine--are working together as part of Espace Mont Blanc, a cross-border sustainable-development initiative involving French, Swiss and Italian communities.

Educating visitors is vital. Tourists are warned not to drop rubbish and there are now recycling points dotted all around the valley, from the town centre to halfway up the mountains. A blog (chamonixgoesgreen.org) reports environmental news in the town, and the 'green' message permeates the tourist office's activities--last year, its policy to mitigate its environmental impact was recognised with the ISO 14001 certification for environmental management.

'It's increasing public awareness, whether it's people living here or people coming on holiday, and developing the responsible tourism aspect--that's how we want to market Chamonix,' says Claire Burnet, an Englishwoman who works for the tourist office, having lived in the valley for 25 years.

This summer saw the start of the 'scientific cafe': informal weekly meetings in cafes with local scientists, who discuss the Chamonix environment with residents and visitors over a coffee. 'It might be a glaciologist or somebody from the national forest society, or somebody who's talking about the evolution of climate,' says Burnet.

Low-carbon initiatives are also high on the agenda. …

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