Responsible winter vacations

There are snow issues

It is hard to imagine in a pristine, white environment that there are underlying responsible winter vacations issues. But there are, in fact, layers upon layers of issues in these chocolate box landscapes. And most are related to the destruction that can be caused by downhill skiing. Skiing is about fun, frolics and fresh air, so it feels a bit like banning kids from having sugar in a sweet shop when you tell skiers that they have to slow down, or indeed just stop. But the downhill skiing world is a slippery slope.

Another layer to reveal is the cultural impact of winter activity vacations. Many of them take place in remote regions, where people have lived – and still do live – quiet, traditional lifestyles. From the Sámi in Lapland, the Moti of Romania and the Aboriginal tribes of Canada. Don’t ignore them; support them and hear their stories. Because we have so much to learn about winter’s wonders from people who have been embracing them since ancient times.

Wildlife & environment

In Austria, most of the ski stations are mid to low level, and in thirty to fifty years, they will all be out of business because the snow will be gone
– Sergio Savoia, Director World Wildlife Fund’s Alpine Programme, interviewed by Leo Hickman for his seminal book, The Final Call

Piste off with downhill

A well-groomed piste may resemble the icing on a Christmas cake, but we are not going to sugar coat the responsible tourism message. Downhill skiing, the overdevelopment of resorts and the efforts that are made to ensure snow is there for ‘the season’ can, in many cases, destroy our precious, and ecologically vital, mountain landscapes. There are green exceptions, Lech in Austria, Whistler, Aspen and Vail in the USA being some, leading the way in lifts and cable cars running off renewable, heating being provided by biomass, strict water restrictions and so on, but they are still the exception to the rule. See Save our Snow for details of which resorts are taking downhill in the right direction.
Responsible winter vacations are, thankfully, on the up, not only because people are becoming more and more aware of the environmental impact of many downhill resorts, but also because they are fed up with congestion, pollution and commercialisation of the places they love to ski in. With the massive onslaught of advertising and marketing from the ski conglomerates, you would be forgiven for thinking that downhill is the only way to enjoy the snow. But this is not the case at all. There is also a huge movement of people just wanting to, needing to, get back in touch with nature. Seek solace in solitary places and actually meet local people. People who aren’t just serving you glühwein or operating the ski lift that is. Here are some of the wake-up calls about why, at Responsible Travel, we are ‘piste off’ with a lot of the downhill skiing going on out there, and all the rigmarole that accompanies it:

  • As climate changes and snow is thinner on the ground and a lot less predictable, resorts are being developed at higher altitudes, which is avoiding the issue really. Pushing it further uphill instead of prioritising it. And disturbing even more fragile terrain. Indeed, the United Nations predicts that Alpine snowlines could rise by 300m in the next 50 years.*
  • Most downhill ski slopes are graded and, in order to do this, trees are removed and slopes are flattened. Add to this ski lift pylons or cable car infrastructure, and you scar the landscape forever. There are exceptions to this, however, with some resorts lifting the turf before the season, preserving and laying it back afterwards.
  • Snow cannons are the devil’s work to environmentalists and their use is on the increase. As well as the use of minerals and nutrients to create the snow, which then seeps into the soil and damages indigenous plants and habitats, they usurp vast amounts of ground water. It takes 220,000 gallons of water to cover an acre of land and, in the Alps, half of this water comes from manmade reservoirs, the rest from rivers and local drinking supplies. A responsible downhill skiing company will not be adding anything to the water before freezing it.
  • Litter discarded in the mountains does not degrade – even natural waste such as banana skins can take two years to decompose, and cigarette butts five years. And as for water bottles, those water companies that market themselves with ‘pure mountains’ style branding have a lot to answer for. It takes up to 450 years for one bottle to degrade, all the while letting its inherent plastic chemicals and mountain-covered labelling seep into the soil.
  • The destruction of wildlife in overdeveloped resort areas is significant. Birds are killed when they collide with ski-lift cables. The Canadian lynx is highly endangered by the proliferation of ski resorts. And some creatures, such as chamois or hares, injure themselves in soft deep snow, which they leap into, in order to escape skiers heading towards them at speed.
  • In the larger downhill skiing resorts, there is a problem with second home ownership, many of which are left empty throughout the year. This creates resentment in the small mountain communities among residents, where it is felt that the cultural landscape of many mountain villages is being changed by mass tourism.
What you can do:
  • Make sure you travel with a company that has a responsible tourism policy. These expert companies understand mountain environments, use highly qualified guides, and also support small local communities. And if downhill is your thing, then consult a sustainable skiing website such as Save our Snow, which highlights which downhill resorts are taking big moves to be responsible and green.
  • Take up cross country skiing, snowshoeing or, if you need a bit more of an adrenaline hit, ski touring.
  • Respect the principles of Leave No Trace by taking all litter home, and leave all branches etc. intact as you move through wilderness habitats.
  • Support the invaluable work of international charity Mountain Wilderness by following and sharing their pioneering projects on social media/blogs and so on.
  • Don’t take airplane or helicopter tours over the Alps. They create unnecessary noise in pristine places. In fact, overall it’s good to keep
*Source: The Final Call: Investigating Who Really Pays for Our Vacations, by Leo Hickman (Eden Project Books)

People & culture

Sámi indigenous peoples

Many winter activity vacations take us to the far northern reaches of Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish Lapland, where much of the population is Sámi and have Sámi as a first language. Although there are a number of dialects, the main variety is North Sámi, which is spoken by about 14,000 people, but is sadly in decline. Efforts have been made in recent years, with initiatives such as the Minority Languages Act, which sought to promote Sámi language teaching and wider use in Lapland. But in reality, the younger generation doesn’t speak it very well, and it is rarely used in an official capacity. For tourism purposes, the Sámi culture is in danger of becoming over commercialised, and thus trivialised. Reindeer herding, for example, is often sold as the Sámi thing to do, however, in reality only 10 percent of Sámi belong to active reindeer herding collectives (known as sameby), and only 5 percent are believed to actually herd reindeer. Even the Swedish government, for example, gives Sámi rights based on the idea that their primary activity is reindeer herding, limiting rights for the many Sámi for whom this is not a key part of their lifestyle.

Land rights are also an issue for the Sámi and although, in theory, they are respected, there are still issues of encroachment by mining companies, disputes with farmers over grazing pasture for reindeer – and tourism operations. Anti-Sámi prejudice is also, sadly, prevalent amid some who see the Sámi as 'outsiders' and 'inferior', despite the lauding of Sámi culture as a tourist draw. So, it’s all conflicted and confused. And of course, ultimately it is the Sámi’s right to choose how, when and indeed if they market themselves in tourism. They just should not be told how to do it.
What can you do?
Taking a winter vacation that fully integrates with Sámi communities, learning about their traditions and enjoying cultural exchange, is a valued aspect of a responsible tourism vacation in this region. However, the only way to truly experience Sámi culture is to give it the time and respect it deserves. Read about it in advance, ask questions and you will learn about some of the things that Sámi themselves may take for granted. Such as their innate connection with nature, or their musical and artisanal skills. Sometimes people don’t value their own heritage until we, as their guests show them how much we value it. And in so doing, and heightening their pride of place and culture, we can help them protect it.

Culture of mountain safety

Mountain safety is like a religion for people living in elevated landscapes. They respect the extreme climate, they stay prepared and they know what to do in an emergency. We tourists, however, aren’t even lapsed. Most of us are agnostic when it comes to safety and so, when tourists act irresponsibly, local people get very annoyed. Understandably. The good news is that most winter activity vacations are in small groups, led by expert guides. The UIMLA International Mountain Leader and the IFMGA Mountain Guide are the only internationally recognised qualifications in the mountains worldwide, and they are highly qualified people who know exactly how and when to tackle the mountain or remote rural terrain depending on weather, the time of year, avalanche risks and so on. They are also fully trained in emergency procedures and will warn the group about dangers and how to prevent accidents.
What you can do:
Make sure you are fit and well prepared before your trip. Safe footwear, the right amount of layers, waterproofs, water and an emergency kit are key. Ensure that you are heading into the hills with an internationally qualified mountain leader and always listen to their instructions. And then, enjoy yourself. It’s not all doom and gloom.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dino Reichmuth] [Ski resort in Summer: Ronnie Macdonald] [What can you do: Adrien Lebrun] [Sami people of Lapland: Nikola Johnny Mirkovic] [The UIMLA logo: Michalus]