How sustainable should mountain tourism be?

There is a general consensus that every business must make a contribution to the sparing use of the planet’s resources.

Sustainability has found its way into everyday life in trade and industry in a wide variety of ways, from the use of water-saving faucets and photovoltaics to the introduction of auditing and certification systems for a broad-based analysis of the potential for savings and improvements. The question addressed in the following is about the driving force behind this development: Is it the company or the wishes and expectations of new customers who will reward such decisions? It is the familiar question: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? 

On the subject of the initiatives taken by businesses, a poll of certified hotels in Austria is a source of information on why businesses choose to make a commitment to the environment. In the majority of cases, the main motive for such a commitment and the decision to invest in eco-audits and certification programs was not customer expectations or potential cost reductions but the personal attitude of the hotel management (in this case mainly the proprietor). The relevance for customers was only a secondary factor: “In a certified hotel, customers know that they can rely on the promises made with regard to quality.” Marketing considerations were also mentioned by the hotels. In general, the certified hotels that participated in the poll achieved higher levels of environmental savings than expected and the impact on customers was also high and greater than expected. In the case of ropeway companies that have positioned themselves on the market with the help of certification schemes and a strong environmental management profile, the situation is similar: The contribution to the environment is primarily dependent on the attitude of management.

Additional insights are provided by a poll conducted in collaboration with the Austrian Hotelier Association, in which 164 managers were asked about the environmental investment decisions taken by their hotels, which were mainly in the four-star category. Their answers relating to public perceptions of their hotels’ environmental management policies and measures paint a clear picture: In general, hotel managers do not expect investments in environmental measures to generate higher occupancy rates (80%), and 62% of them reject the notion that such investments pay off because they attract new segments of visitors. The managers do agree, however, that “sustainability and eco-friendly products and services are becoming increasingly important for tourists” (78%) and that installations should be designed to generate savings and make a return on investment possible within ten years (82%). Equally, the majority of the hotel managers polled consider it essential that investments in support of the environment be communicated to visitors (90%). They also consider it important that visitors should not take such measures for granted and that hotel staff should be able to directly communicate the relevant information. Similarly, they feel that a hotel’s commitment to the environment should be included in its marketing activities. The answers provided by the hotel managers find confirmation in their environmental practices and in the advertising materials produced by leading major hotels. 

Environmental Information

A comparison with the ropeway industry shows that, in spite of similarities at the level of motivation, there are significant differences in terms of implementation and the desired impact on public perceptions. In order to examine the environmental information provided in the ropeway industry, 71 ropeway operators and their websites were studied with reference to aspects of environmental protection. The websites were used because they also serve as a platform for bookings and communication with customers. On 54% of the sites, no environmental information is provided at all, while it is a hard-to-find subitem on 34% websites. The others offer some information in the media section or an info box. Only 4% of the ropeway companies have a link in the main menu to substantial environmental information. The most frequent items referred to were transport (38%) followed by energy and energy savings (34%) and waste management (17%). However, the presentation of relevant environmental information seems to be a problem, as abstract consumption figures and savings expressed in kilowatt hours do not mean much to customers. In an attempt to solve the problem, Augustin Kröll of the Fellhornbahn compares the 15.67 kWh average energy consumption per person for a day’s skiing on the Fellhorn in Oberstdorf with a visit to an indoor swimming pool and sauna (29 kWh per visitor) and air travel from Munich to Santo Domingo for a Caribbean holiday (7,500 kWh per passenger). The problems of effective communication in the field of the environment clearly call for study in their own right.

All in all it can be said that on the supply side, in the case of both hotels and ropeways, an effort is being made in various forms to communicate environmental information. But on the demand side, how do winter visitors see things? Over the years, skiers have developed something of a bad conscience on the subject of their sport. From 1993 to 2011, the answers given to the exaggerated and misleading question: “Do you agree that skiing is one of the main burdens on the mountain environment?” show that the proportion of skiers who consider the claim wholly or partly true has remained at a constantly high level for many years (see chart). In 1995 and 2011, the polls were conducted in the resorts themselves. Nevertheless the main criteria for visitor choices of winter resort were not the environment-friendly solutions adopted or the resorts’ commitment to the environment, but the quality of the skiing, safety, price levels, accessibility and the size of the ski area in the premium range. At present, environmental criteria do not play a decisive role in the choice of destination although more and more attention is now being paid to them, especially with regard to travel to the resort. More detailed studies show that they can make a positive difference for a committed winter sport resort. Similar results have been produced by studies conducted in Canada with reference to Whistler. There, too, little interest is shown in environmental information in the planning and booking stage, although Whistler’s certification programs and environmental labels meet with a positive response in the resort itself (compared with clear rejection of the idea of introducing eco-taxes). 


In general it can be seen that customer concerns and the growing focus on sustainability mean the approach adopted by the high-end hotel trade could be equally relevant for the ropeway industry. The following points are important:

  • Measures taken to safeguard the environment should be communicated. Otherwise they cannot be relevant for customers at the decision-making stage. Winter resort websites are the key tool in this respect. 
  • Employees must also be provided with the necessary information.
  • The information should be communicated in such a way that visitors are not only aware of the measures taken but also recognize their value without taking them for granted. 
  • Environmental measures and information should be integrated in the resorts’ marketing activities.
  • Ulrike Pröbstl-Haider
Univ.-Prof. Dipl.-Ing. DDr. Ulrike PRÖBSTL - Institute of Landscape Development, Recreation and Conservation Planning at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna
Photo: by author
Skiers have developed something of a bad conscience about their sport. That makes it all the more important for winter resort operators to play an active role with regard to environmental information.
Photo: by author

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