Dhe fact that I grew up in a South Tyrolean farming village and still live in South Tyrol today makes it easier for me to write about the people who live here and those who spend their vacation weeks here. The first and most important insight: The life of the South Tyrolean mountain farmers is not as rosy as the city dweller may have thought in the course of the “Back to Nature” movements; it certainly never was. From 1869 to 1910 alone, the population in the high-altitude zones of Tyrol (over 1000 meters) fell by an average of 22 to 37 percent, despite the high number of children.
Despite all efforts, the yields achieved in mountain agriculture were so low that the population often had difficulty surviving in winter. Individual mountain farming communities have lost more than half of their residents in these five decades.
In addition, the desettlement in the high mountains – in contrast to the lowlands – always means final desolation of the landscape. Tourism has recently made it possible to take countermeasures, but those who make a significant contribution to tourism success are often left out. On the one hand, the mountain farmers are supposed to ensure that the alpine pastures are preserved for tourists as a place to live and relax, and on the other hand not to be “spoiled” by tourism.
For decades, tourism managers have worked diligently to meet the expectations of leisure-hungry people with well-tailored and promotionally packaged offers. In order to sell vacationers, our customers, fun, amusement and exuberance, freedom is demanded. The mountain farmers must have the opportunity to further develop their own way of life instead of adopting one that is foreign to them and that disturbs their harmony and relationship with their environment. The sustainability that guarantees relaxation for guests in the mountains can only be achieved through the triad of agriculture, local way of life and tourism.
What is important for the rescue of South Tyrol
However, it must be assumed that guests assume personal responsibility. Active holidays in the mountains are only justifiable if the question of responsibility has been clarified beforehand. Anyone who sets off into the mountains – by bike, on skis, on two legs – bears the responsibility for themselves and those accompanying them. This is particularly true in nature and national parks, where there should not be any infrastructure.
Then there is the responsibility for nature. On the one hand, it is important to strengthen the visitor’s sense of responsibility and to create framework conditions that legally protect the owner of a path, a meadow, a rock where active sports are practiced. It is unacceptable for those who use our mountains without restraint and make mistakes to harm those who keep their natural landscape open and thus make it available. In the mountain world, which should remain as wild as possible, everyone who cavorts in it has to take care of their own safety.
Because if we sacrifice all natural landscapes for the interests of tourism, there will ultimately be no room for mountain experience, and if we don’t integrate tourism into the mountain landscape, the cultural landscape will be destroyed. So in South Tyrol we need two prerequisites in order to save them as an inexhaustible resource for all future: cultivated cultural landscape and untouchable natural landscape. In between, all forms of experiences are possible.
Mountaineering and the tourism industry have pursued conflicting interests for over a hundred years. In the meantime, however, there is magic on the slopes everywhere. On vacation in the mountains, everyone wants what they also demand in their urban habitat: infrastructure, comfort, security. As a matter of course. If something happens anyway, the warden, the hut owner or the mountain guide will be sued. It is this consumer attitude that does not fit into the mountains. Where once there was alpinism, there is now tourism with slopes and hut magic.
The alpine clubs, which helped to build the “Funpark Alpen” without being aware of it, only cause confusion today. After installing paths, huts and mountain hotels, they lament the loss of natural landscape, but believe they have to defend the bottom of the valley with populist slogans. They don’t have any useful suggestions for nature-friendly tourism in the Alps. Because where people have lived for thousands of years, they must continue to shape and work in order to be able to stay. It is about a human, about an ecological measure.
Parts of the high Alps are now a large fairground
The use of our mountain world by millions of consumers must stop where man has never lived and cannot live in the long term, in the high mountain regions where no wood, no hay, no grain grows anymore. Where there are no raw materials to be found.
The values there – empty space, peace, “primal nature”, danger – are only worth something if they remain accessible to the few who are on their own responsibility and with plenty of mountain experience, i.e. those who expose themselves to the effort and dangers without climbing aids to climb where man does not belong.
⇾ Watch a video for Reinhold Messner’s 75th birthday in 2019:
Only parts of our high Alps have amusement park character today, but overall they are still a large fairground: with overcrowded parking lots, kilometers of traffic jams, noise, hectic and activity between the sky, the climbing wall and the bottom of the gorge.
Air pollution and noise pollution are often higher here than in the metropolitan areas, from which all those seeking relaxation jostle for the Alps. This city culture must be contrasted with the mountain culture with self-sufficiency farming, deceleration, modesty and real danger areas, which only enter those who have learned to survive on the mountain.
We don’t need glacier ski areas, no artificial lakes, no artificial rock walls to keep the mountain farmers “on top”. All this belongs near the city as long as we can afford it and the energy resources are sufficient. In the mountains, between the bottom of the valley and the high pastures, there is a need for the curious seeker of relaxation who gets and pays for what the alpine farmer produces so that he can stay where he has been for generations.
Where agriculture is only considered a resource for tourism
Our mountains in South Tyrol are under enormous pressure. Climate change is taking hold faster than in the lowlands, global warming is causing flora to thrive, mountain farmers are less able than ever to compete with industrial agriculture in the lowlands. As a result, we are losing those landscape conservationists who created the small-scale alpine cultural landscape and maintained it for over a millennium.
⇾ A video from November 2022 shows the glacier melt in the Alps:
In addition, there is tourism that demands more and faster mobility: roads, lifts, slopes for hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and, above all, skiers are the prerequisites for the success of a modern mountain tourism destination. With global warming and the visible consequences of this climate change – such as heavy rain, droughts, winters with little snow – ski areas are also increasingly under pressure.
How the alpine landscape is built up piece by piece, used up, sold out and left behind in ruins can be seen everywhere where agriculture is only understood as a resource for tourism.
Prerequisite for sustainable tourism in the Alps
The desolation of the alpine cultural landscape would not only be a problem for environmental protection and expensive for all of us. Organic farmers who hold their own in market niches, village communities who try to stay afloat together by dovetailing tourism and agriculture are the prerequisites for sustainable tourism in the Alps. The many dumpling and polenta festivals, which are about nothing other than an entry in the “Guinness Book of Records”, are as ridiculous as climbing 15,000 meters on the Hundskogel in 15 hours.
Where are the young climbers, I ask myself, who are reviving the mountain farms, in Trentino, in the Dolomites, in Val Senales, where people can work, design, climb – everything on their doorstep, all year round and, quite incidentally, to save local culture ?
I have nothing against the artificial climbing wall on the outskirts, it can stay open 365 days a year – temperature controlled, dry, cleaned. But it does not solve the problems in the Alps. At most, it arouses the desire for more secured climbing routes. Finally in the mountains. All trend sports will eventually become boring – whether hiking, walking, biking, rafting, skating, skiing, freeriding, climbing – but fortunately South Tyrol is more than a sports facility, much more.
Today we also talk a lot about sustainability in South Tyrol – use of the landscape, saving of resources in construction and local products. Organic products are in, and the value of doing without is increasingly opposed to unrestrained consumption. The problems that will come up for the next generations are being discussed and countermeasures have begun. Perhaps South Tyrol will set an example in this regard.
The text is an excerpt from the newly published new edition of the “Instructions for use for South Tyrol” by Reinhold Messner, Piper Verlag, 224 pages, 16 euros