Switzerland Setting the Bar High in Ecotourism

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Switzerland seems to unfailingly yield to that old adage about the journey superseding the destination. Take Zermatt, for example. Nestled in southern Switzerland bordering Italy, it is a small town paving the way for eco-friendly tourism.

During the last leg of the trip, on the silent train from Visp to the village, the pinnacle of the destination is in plain view: the iconoclastic Matterhorn. Prepare for seventy minutes rolling through the valleys, cars out of sight. Pollution is only behind you, as are your worries. Icy cerulean rivers stream past on your right and jagged landscapes lined with green pastures are to be admired to your left. In the summer the hiking trails are dotted with locals and tourists alike, striving for another perspective of the Matterhorn. Birds chime and cows graze, totally unawares that their backyards are the reverie of people the world over.

Setting up the infrastructure

Well, the alpine fauna may not necessarily fully appreciate the luxury of their view, but the local people sure do. On the train I encounter a Zermatt resident who looks exhausted yet anything but unkempt after a day of hiking around nearby Täsch. She expresses her gratitude for living in such a secluded and prosperous place, and explains that her livelihood is dependent on tourism, as is the case for the majority of Zermatt’s inhabitants. In fact, over 60% of Zermatt’s income derives directly from the hotel and hospitality industry.

Yet rather than letting the promise of potentially unlimited tourist pennies squander their town, the residents impel their solidarity in a steadfast determination to safeguard Zermatt. Despite, and simultaneously because of, tourism’s current status as the strongest service sector industry in the world, the boundaries for conserving the mountain paradise have been set.

As president of the local “Gemeinde”, or community, Romy Biner-Hauser elucidates, “only 0.5% our of village is building area. All the rest is forest, mountains or protected area.” As if that were too much, in 2012 a cantonal referendum delivered tighter regulations regarding the construction of commercial accommodation in the area. In 2017, the commune is considering a further update to these restrictions. It’s a reflection of the locals’ attitude to preserving the Zermatt environment. “We know that we only have tourism as income and therefore we do try to improve without destroying it,” clarifies Biner-Hauser.

Biner-Hauser advises that the best way for tourists to limit their impact on the locality is “respect. Respect the nature, the surrounding, the environment”. Renewable energy engineer Thomas Aicher expounds, as for reducing our own individual impacts as tourists, “I could imagine that the largest negative impact that tourists have are the emissions caused by the trip to Zermatt. But that’s just my gut feeling. Therefore, to really change things for the better, they have to be encouraged to use public transportation.”

The commune has hence set up the infrastructure to make that so much easier for tourists: you can’t drive here. You may drive as far as neighbouring town Täsch, from which point you have to take the train, as private vehicles are banned in Zermatt. Taxis as well as buses within the village are all electric.

365 days of alpine antics

While the commune of 5,500 people soars to a population of over 30,000 in the winter months, it shouldn’t be surprising that the people have taken such initiatives to preserve the destination. Looking at the current visitor rates, they are a stark contrast to those of the first travellers lodge, formerly known as Hotel Cervin, which recorded an average of 10 guests per year just 150 years ago. In 2016 alone, 1.8million people the world over visited the village.

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So, why such a dramatic increase? Well, Zermatt in 1865 was a small town elated and humbled by the first ascent of the Matterhorn, the peak of which pierces the sky at a bold 4478m. He was an Englishman, Edward Whymper, and his reaching the summit was his first success after eight prior attempts.

The news of Whymper’s feat having rung across the nation and certainly the world, Zermatt’s summer tourism was flung into what would turn into an exponential frenzy. Every avid hiker who knew of the Matterhorn would shiver with ardor in the face of the now conquerable alp, and it doesn’t seem as though that fervor will be dwindling any time soon.

Local resident and doctor Christian exclaims that when he sees a mountain, “I just have to climb it”. He even professes his need to climb Ayres Rock. I explained that’s not quite the same. Apples, oranges. I guess there’s something in that pollution-void air.

Nevertheless, the Zermatt Alpine Centre now prides itself in offering eco-friendly activities every day of the year. Ice-climbing, rock-climbing, mountain biking and hiking can be enjoyed in the warmer months while in winter 360 kilometres of pistes are on offer for snow aficionados, some of which are skiable year-round.

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Powering forward

To support local and foreign alpinists’ passion to preserve their environment, an eco-mountain refuge has been constructed alongside the Gorner Glacier. In 2010, the New Monte Rosa Hut, designed to house some 120 hikers, was opened at 2,883 metres above sea level, east of the Matterhorn. Thomas Aicher, a renewable engineer working for the hut, states that it’s difficult to give a concrete number, but an estimated 80-90% of its power is derived from solar.

The construction, funded and erected over a period of seven years by the Swiss Alpine Club as well as Zurich’s ETH University, stores excess power, which is readily available for use on overcast days. Water is provided from the glacial melt, contained in a reservoir nearby, filtered and heated for use with solar energy.

The Monte Rosa project may serve as a model for advancing green technologies in the rest of the resort. Aicher explains, “technically it is possible to make all huts more or less energy autarkic (installing PV, solar thermal, wind turbines, hydro power). However, the costs of such systems are significant. As far as I know, the Swiss Alpine Club mainly uses sustainable energy systems.”

The locals have spoken, and it may just mean the Swiss cows and foreign nomads can carry on enjoying these world-class views, untainted by smoggy skies, for centuries to come.

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