It all looked great; a traditional apartment in the alpine village of Oberjoch, located at 1200m in the Eastern Allgaü region of Bavaria and close to the beautiful Tannheimer Valley in neighbouring Tyrol.
With Germanic diligence I scanned the latest version of Google satellite maps for any items on my list of potential eyesores (including overhead transmission wires, new sewerage installations or shopping mall developments) which could detract from our holiday experience. Reassuringly, the “Google” search drew a blank; the images revealed that our chosen holiday apartment was, in fact, in a quiet location on the edge of the village and overlooking a pristine alpine meadow. Rest assured, I cheerfully clicked the “book accommodation” icon, confident in our choice.
A couple of weeks later, Google (most inconveniently) made one of their (all too few and far between) satellite imagery updates. Next time I clicked on Google Maps I was horrified to find, not a pristine meadow, but, in its place, a major new resort hotel development.
Research revealed this to be the swanky new “Hotel Panorama”, a five-star “wellness” and spar development offering “wellbeing” and relaxation benefits for wealthy guests at 5 Star prices. Unsurprisingly, it appeared that the development had not just sprung out of thin air during the intervening 2 weeks since we had made our booking; it had in fact already been in business for three years or so.
This revelation drew me to two conclusions;
i) resort based tourism is bringing about rapid changes to alpine communities and landscapes and…
ii) never believe that what you see on Google Maps represents an accurate reflection of the present state of things.
We talked about cancelling our holiday apartment, in favour of finding another “pristine” meadow location far from the madding “wellness” crowds; in the end however (and following much debate) we opted to stick with our original plan come hell or high water.
Over the following weeks, I started to ponder as to just what changes were occurring in Alpine communities like Oberjoch; just what was the “wellness” industry and why was type of development proving to be so popular ? How are such developments affecting the landscape, culture and social structure of the communities themselves ? Who are the winners and the losers ? What about the relationships between tourism and traditional land management practices including farming and forestry ? Are there models of tourism which might be more sustainable in the longer term for local communities and landscapes ?
On the face of it, the situation seemed pretty simple; here was an example of developer lead big business screwing up yet another local community and marginalizing smaller family run tourism businesses and traditional guest houses – a purely parasitic relationship in line with the classic Walmart or Trump scenario. Like everything to do with communities however, nothing is ever quite so straight forward or clear cut as it initially appears. Dig a little deeper behind any local community and you start to find there are factions, local elites, power imbalances and feuds that can sometimes go back for generations. You can encounter genuinely motivated people who care passionately about the future of their communities and others who are simply out to make a quick buck, regardless of the impact.
The traditional tourism sector has not always helped itself or moved with the times. Inertia is often rife amongst traditional accommodation providers; many small businesses have basically been offering the same type of service for years and therefore see no reason to move on from what customers demanded (or put up with) in the 1970s (regardless of industry statistics or changing consumer demands).
In this respect the competition from new “resort style” developments inevitably brings change to small communities such as an influx of itinerant labour from other parts of Europe, reduction of guests using other types of accommodation and increased traffic congestion. Whilst some of these changes can be negative, there are also positive aspects. For a start the latest generation of “wellness resorts” are offering genuine customer service, which is sometimes in rather short supply in more traditional establishments. There are up to date facilities such as Wifi (that works), courteous staff with a customer service orientation, cheerful modern decor, “en suites” and enough parking spaces for everyone.
Traditional holiday apartments on the other hand, whilst offering a more “authentic” and individualistic visitor experience, can be plagued by their own idiosyncrasies and minor annoyances. Examples include terse notices about guests stealing cutlery, sitting-room sofa beds, intrusive landladies barging in unannounced to water balcony flowers, basic cooking facilities and additional charges for using the washing machine; anachronistic customs which should have long ago been banished into some distant past.
In short, competition created by new developments is a wake up call to the traditional tourism sector that they need to smarten up their act, move with the times and actually listen to what customers want. The generation of retirees who accepted the institution of the traditional holiday apartment is slowly dying off; the pensioners of today have more money and more choice and are moving upmarket. As for families; well it can be pretty hard to find holiday apartments offering more than one bedroom (back to the sitting room sofa bed scenario). Don’t get me wrong; my sympathies are entirely with the small businesses (small is beautiful after all), however these traditional family run businesses need to stop being complacent and move with the times rather than just assuming that visitors with come as they have always done.
The Wellness resort Industry:
Interested to learn more about the “wellness” industry, I did a bit of simple research. Forbes website informed me that investing in the Wellness Resort industry was currently a speculators paradise with virtually guaranteed returns on investment. Typically guests using such resorts tend to be in the more mature age groups; older professional couples, burned out executives or well healed pensioners who are concerned about preserving their “youthful” appearances a few years longer (but who themselves might frown at more intense, high-octane activities such as mountain hikes, paragliding or downhill biking).
Visitors to wellness hotels spend much of their time in a bath robe walking from one pampering ritual to another. Such activities might include immersion in hay baths, placing of hot stones on the back, facial treatments, yoga or massage. The main point about these activities are that these are all processes which can be commoditized and charged for (preferably on company expense accounts). Activities which are free, such as swimming in fresh mountain lakes, hiking or picnicking in pristine meadows do not seem to fall within the jurisdiction of the wellness industry (at least not as primary activities) despite the obvious health and wellbeing benefits of these things.
So is wellness just a fad, like wearing red trousers or going vegan, which might fizzle out in a year or two ? From my perspective much of the rapid growth of wellness resorts can be attributed to a desire to “keep up with the Jones’s”. Rather like owning an SUV, it makes a statement that has less to do with functionality or health benefits but more to do with image; it’s about being a member of an exclusive club and having status with friends and colleagues back home. Staying in a traditional holiday apartment, by contrast, with spotty kids or retired couples from Esson just doesn’t quite cut it with those who jostling to nail their colours onto the social mobility mast. The question is whether this fad will continue; certainly it shows no sign of abating at the present time and the wellness resort industry remains a safe option for investors looking for sure returns.
Developments in the Landscape:
Of concern to me is the physical impact that resort style developments (and some other ill-conceived pieces of infrastructure) are having on the alpine landscape. Changing styles of architecture for example are slowly starting to creep into the landscape with “barrack” type, boxy developments which appeal to current minimalistic trends, particularly amongst the Germans professional classes. I recently spoke to a German architect who told me he was concerned about the loss of local identity as the majority of his clients want him to design functionalist, concrete cube type dwellings; devoid of soul or local cultural context. In a rush to scoop up local taxes and boost inward investment, municipal planning authorities seem to push through such developments at the drop of a hat, with few questions being asked or suggestions for modifications.
The result of this could be a case of “death by a thousand cuts” for treasured cultural landscapes. The characteristic vernacular architecture of the Bavarian Alps and neighbouring Tyrol is superb, with a strong emphasis on quality craftsmanship and use of timber as a construction material for dwellings and agricultural buildings. These usually sit perfectly within a backdrop of meadows, forests and mountains. Generally (though not always) timber is sourced locally from sustainably managed forests with processing work done in local mills. In short the indigenous culture of local building construction represents craftsmanship at its finest and is sustainable and eco-friendly.
At risk of sounding like Prince Charles, it seems to me to be obvious that if the people of the alpine region are to avoid “killing the goose that lays the golden egg”, they must endeavour to maintain their architectural traditions and styles as an integral component of new developments. Creeping, incongruous construction has an erosive effect and results in a slow degradation of cultural integrity.
Resort-style developments are leading to the urbanisation of rural villages, creating a very different atmosphere and visitor experience. One only has to visit the nearby Kleine Walsertal, an enclave of Austria (located down a cul-de-sac road South of Obersdorf ) to see how creeping proliferation of resort hotels, casinos and retail outlets is having a detrimental effect which is slowly changing an essentially a rural, alpine valley into a theme park for urban dwellers.
Just a few km East from Oberjoch, you cross the border from Bavaria into the Tannheimer Tal, a part of the Austrian province of Tyrol (but geographically very much a part of the Allgaü region). The Tannheimer Tal very much lives up to its self proclaimed accolade of being one of the most beautiful high valleys in the Alps. There are dramatic limestone peaks, emerald-green meadows, the stunning lakes of the Haldensee and the Vilsalpsee and several attractive small villages, which (although relatively developed for tourism) still maintain their traditional appearances and sense of scale in the landscape..
At Schattwald, the first village in the Talheimer valley which you come to over the border from Bavaria, there is a perfect (but thankfully very localised) example of how future development of this beautiful region could go wrong. Here, one developer is single-handedly attempting to alter the character of the location through constructing a haphazard array of retail, accommodation and commercial premises in a hotchpotch of architectural styles which are strung out along the highway.
These developments appear to be completely out of any context to anything else round about. Virtually the first thing you see in Schattwald is the a gaudy yellow and blue “Lutz” supermarket (which looks something Ikea would be proud of or perhaps as an accommodation module for a future Mars mission). This is rapidly followed in quick succession by the boxy “Guthof”, set of minimalistic holiday apartments (under construction) which would perfectly grace any modern industrial estate and then a series of further eclectic developments at varying stages of completion. Interestingly “Guthof” again makes “wellness” one of its selling points to potential investors.
Perhaps the intention of the architects and developers may have been good, but to me and in this location it just seems out-of-place and ill-conceived. Why do the planners allow this ? Why are there apparently no design standards for commercial developments in such an iconic cultural landscape ? For a good illustration of how this development style might snowball, take a look at small towns in Canada and the States, where roadside sprawl, advertising hoardings and seedy looking “Diners” often stretch for miles and miles into the surrounding countryside, blighting otherwise attractive settlements and their settings. You can see the same process also as soon as you cross the borders into Belgium, where roadside advertising hoardings predominate and planning standards or settlement sprawl appear to be more lax.
I’m not suggesting that development in the region should immediately be halted; a scenario which in itself will lead to certain stagnation within rural communities. Cultural landscapes and rural settlements constantly evolve and must be considered to be dynamic in nature. Healthy communities also provide the infrastructure and services needed to support and maintain viable local populations (as well as tourists), such as schools, shops, health centres, retail outlets and visitor accommodation. Communities which do not provide these facilities will stagnate or simply enter a spiral of decline as properties are snapped up as investment opportunities by second home owners from other parts of Europe.
Developments which do occur should fit into the existing local cultural context where possible and should reflect local styles. In this respect new buildings can even enhance the cultural landscape if designed with some consideration of context. High quality innovative designs can revitalise communities and provide new pride and energy to local residents. From a positive perspective, I found many examples of innovative and high quality modern building styles around Allgaü and the Tyrol. These generally incorporate both traditional and modern elements, whilst making use of new building technologies. Examples seen include houses and retail developments in Tannheim and Hindelang.
Such developments make significant use of timber as a construction material and sit perfectly within the landscape alongside more established structures. I even found supermarkets in Tannheim and the nearby village of Gran which fitted reasonably well into their surroundings. So if this can be achieved on a small-scale, using sustainable materials, I’m sure there is also scope on a bigger scale for more sympathetic design of new resort developments and retail infrastructure. Local sourcing of timber products from sustainably grown and harvested sources can also help to provide additional income for the region’s farmers and foresters and should help to maintain the area’s proud tradition of craftsmanship, albeit with new innovation and technologies to boot.
The Changing face of winter sports:
Thankfully, to date, development in the Allgaü region has generally been sensitive and based around existing settlements. Winter sports developments are still on a relatively small-scale and the region has been spared the stark, utilitarian concrete monoliths that we associate with 70s ski resorts such as Tignes, Les Menuires or Pas de la Casa. However this may be starting to change; nearby Austria, for example, has recently become a speculators heaven with many foreign investors, especially Russians, cashing in on the property boom around plush resorts such as Kitzbühel (and effectively circumventing Austrian property ownership laws through elaborate means such as registering a new Company as a loophole).
Although the Allgaü and neighbouring regions do not compete with the big alpine resorts such as Chamonix or St Moritz, winter sports remain an important part of the local economy. Despite the threats posed by climate change in the Alps generally (and less sure snow conditions as in previous decades), small resorts such as Oberjoch are investing heavily in new lift infrastructure with a view to maintaining visitor flow through the winter months.
This is no mere leap of faith that good snow conditions will continue to naturally persist over the coming decades; we know that ski-ing (particularly high level summer ski-ing) in many parts of the Alps is under threat through climate change. However, the relatively high elevation of Oberjoch at (1200m) has so far prevented significant reductions in snow cover. It’s really quite telling though that investments in lifts are also significantly accompanied by snow making infrastructure including snow canons and retention basins designed to provide a water supply for artificial snow manufacture. These features can be visually intrusive and erode the visual integrity of the cultural landscape. Guaranteed snow comes with a price attached !
With questions about overall sustainability of the downhill ski industry in an era of climate change, resorts such as Oberjoch and Tannheim need to consider how they diversify their activities to maintain tourist numbers throughout the year. Traditional summer visitors appear to be somewhat down in numbers across the Alps with an overprovision of summer accommodation options and many other alternative holiday destinations competing for business (we certainly saw many flats and rooms available for rent in what should be the peak summer season).
There appears to be a trend at the moment towards increasing promotion of active adventure tourism such as downhill mountain biking, paragliding and climbing which will appeal more to the “Pepsi Max” generation of younger urbanites who are keen to get their adrenaline fix. This compliments the increase in the more sedentary wellness industry with its holistic retreat centres, scented hay baths and yoga therapies.
Slow Tourism and Green Tourism
Another significant change in the tourism industry over recent years is the growth of “slow tourism” and “green tourism”, both of which place an emphasis very much on experiencing local culture, landscapes and the natural environment at an easy pace, albeit often with modern comforts and accommodation standards. The Hinterstein Tal in particular to the East of Hindelang has pioneered a green tourism approach including elements such as traffic free roads, wildlife watching, sustainable construction, local festivals and “slow food”.
The Hinterstein approach provides me with real optimism about the development of a model for sustainable communities in the Alps. This model involves respecting nature and promoting investment in “natural capital” and ecosystem services. In Hinterstein this has involved active restoration of the upland forests which protect the fragile slopes from the impacts of erosion and avalanches, particularly in the winter months. Over the years many of these forests have been devastated by increasing winter gales, bark beetle plagues and by poor land management practices which favoured overcutting and grazing of the steep slopes.
Although many of the region’s forests have been sustainably managed, there have historically been pockets of intense over-utilisation, such as around the Grunten mountain, where wood was cut to supply charcoal for iron ore production. Often the original mixed forests have been replaced by monocultures of spruce, which do not offer the same biodiversity or soil conservation benefits. Large gaps in the forest cover, devoid of regeneration can also frequently be seen as a result of poor management practices. Sometimes natural erosion and landslides also result in the dramatic loss of forest cover such as around the Vilsalpsee in the Tannheimer Tal.
Happily, there are moves afoot to restore and regenerate some of the worst degraded areas of montane forest in the Hinterstein Tal. This involves protecting areas from grazing to restore the woodland understory and species diversity. On steep open slopes affected by snow avalanches, special techniques have been developed to protect newly planted trees and to allow these to become established. These include constructing wooden tripods around the trees along with more complex timber platforms which help to buffer the velocity of the avalanches. Many of these techniques are showcased at the Bavarian Forest Education Centre near Füssen.
Green Tourism and Cultural heritage:
One of the other positive aspects about “green” tourism is that it can also help to preserve and maintain cultural traditions through fostering local pride and increasing a sense of local identity. Regional architectural styles, local cuisine, crafts, traditional music and village festivals are all elements which can thrive through a green tourism model and which might attract the type of visitors seeking a more authentic tourism experience.
These are also aspects which can also put power firmly back into the hands of local communities and businesses. It is local people who have the knowledge and ownership of these traditions and who can present these most effectively; perhaps through innovative ways including the integration of new technologies. In the Hindelang area particularly there are many living traditions which can be spiced up for new audiences including traditional village “dorf” fests, wood carving, timber construction, seasonal celebrations and folk music. Through volunteer effort, the community in Hinterstein has also restored an old open air swimming pool as an asset for locals and visitors which also doubles as a living ecological habitat with frogs, newts and pond skaters.
Farming for the Future:
The farming community have one of the key roles to play in the promotion of sustainable tourism through maintaining the diverse cultural landscapes of the Allgaü region. Centuries of extensive cattle grazing have helped to create some of the most diverse meadow habitats in Europe. In early summer these meadows come alive in a blaze of colour with wildflowers such as yellow rattle, meadow cranesbills, bellflowers, knapweed and devils bit scabious. These in turn provide a habitat for a diverse range of invertebrates including fritillary, red admirals, peacocks, longhorn beetles and bumble bees.
The grazing of these species-rich meadows by cattle provides the distinctive strong-tasting mountain cheeses and other dairy products from the region. The most important aspect is that these meadows are never treated with chemical fertilisers. Whilst farmers know that fertilisers would enrich the soil and potentially increase productivity, they are also aware that agrichemicals would effectively wipe out the huge diversity of flora and fauna. Ultimately this would also detract from the unique flavour of local speciality products; as one farmer had hand painted ominously (in post apocalyptic style) on a sign by the Visalpsee “Ohne Bauer, Keine Zukunft” (“without farmers, no future) – this is certainly the case for the species rich alpine meadows which characterise the area.
In recent years, tourism has become almost as important for the region’s farmers as the sale of the agricultural products themselves. Cows are grazed in the summer on high mountain meadows where numerous “alpes” or “alm” huts are located. These provide a rustic mountain café environment for walkers and provide simple meals, beer and soft drinks to tired, thirsty visitors. Visiting these alpes is one of the greatest pleasures of walking in the region (as well as being a great motivation for getting kids up into the mountains for a hike). Sometime a visit to an alm hut will be accompanied by a musical serenade local from local musicians – kitsch perhaps, but also quite fun. Many farms also provide the opportunity for “Urlaub am Bauernhof” (holiday on the Farm) and provide guest accommodation and opportunities for visitors to “muck in” with the locals.
Walks with a Theme:
local communities are cashing in on the “green tourism” bandwagon through the development of a whole host of themed paths for walking and cycling. Whilst providing practical recreational opportunities, these also encourage visitors to become immersed in local heritage through active learning and role plays. A good example is the “Schmuggler Steig” which traverses the slopes of the mountain between Oberjoch and Schattwald and which leads visitors through a variety of staged learning posts.
Participants have the opportunity to adopt the role of either customs officials or smugglers and have to fulfil a number of themed tasks en route. Unnecessary complication of a straightforward walk perhaps ? For regular, confident outdoor enthusiasts perhaps; but perhaps for others (including families and the less active) this serves as a means of getting people into the outdoors (and giving them cynically the opportunity to spend money within local villages). During our stay in the region we found no shortage of innovative interpretation projects and themed trails including mountain summit “guest books”, giant spiders webs for climbing and aerial walkways over the trees.
Communities at the Crossroads:
In a world of increasing homogenization, local cultural identity, natural heritage and indigenous products can provide key selling points for visitors; local distinctiveness (or the thing that makes any area unique) is now high up on the wish list of potential customers. Communities are starting to realise the value of their natural capital and to cash in on this.
Resort hotels, casinos and theme parks will certainly have a big role to play in the future development of tourism in the Alps. Personally, however, I think that this is the wrong road to follow. Community based “green” tourism models appear to me to offer the best opportunities for creating a sustainable tourism economy which is both responsive to environmental concerns and which offers tangible benefits to local people. This also keeps power concentrated in local hands rather than handing it over to developers and big corporations (no matter how attractive these options might seem as a quick fix for communities).
Through our actions, we could create either a green utopia or, without foresight, a developers free for all in the Alps. Reality will, most likely, lie somewhere in between these two extremes. Most significantly, local communities must not become complacent and simply serve up tourism in the way it has always been done. Similarly, local people should not just rely on the “good will” of developers to impose short-term solutions which might claim to bring jobs and inward investment as short-term financial fixes.
In the competitive, globalised world of tourism, innovation and co-operation will pay dividends. Communities must take power into their own hands and work together, through effective partnerships, to deliver enduring, quality and attractive visitor opportunities. Ultimately it will be the visitors themselves, however, who decide upon the future of alpine tourism; after all the World really is their oyster…