There are few areas of human activity where the effects of climate change have been more noticeable to the public than the winter tourism industry in countries such as Switzerland.
The mountains: a source of life
Although the industry represents ~2% of national GDP, it is a vital source of economic activity and employment in many mountainous areas of the country, where its direct and indirect contribution to GDP and employment can be as high as 40%. In many areas faced with structural unemployment, jobs linked to tourism have been critical to retain young people who otherwise would have fled to lower, more urban areas, effectively condemning vast areas of the Alpine region to full abandonment2. Yet, the effect of climate change on the overall Alpine region, and specifically on Switzerland, are now threatening the long-term prospects of the winter tourism industry, and the livelihood of millions of people with it.
Switzerland’s specific topography with mountain regions and lowlands on both sides of the Alpine ridge has made climate change particular evident: if the world’s average temperature has risen by 0.85° C between 1864 and 2011, in Switzerland the increment has been twice as much. The effects on the Alpine environment is alarming: glaciers, for instance, have been retreating 2-3% per year, while the ratio of snowfalls over precipitation has decreased by as much as 40% below 800m. Crucially, this trend is expected to worsen, increasing the altitude where snowfalls are reliable enough to justify skiing operations from 1,200m to 1,800m: only 44% of Swiss ski resorts would thus remain viable. Simultaneously, climate change is causing precipitations to be less frequent, yet more violent, leading to an increase in natural catastrophes such as flooding, avalanches and landslides, and thus making the Alpine areas more dangerous and costly for human activity.
Verbier: a case in point
Verbier, a popular tourist destination in Western Switzerland with slopes between 1,500m and 3,330m, is seen as one of the most reliable skiing areas in Europe. Yet even here, climate change has showed its impact: summer skiing on the Tortin glacier was closed in 1997 due to the glacier’s reduction – more than 1km over the last century – and increasing instability. Since then, the resort has tried to slow down the melting process by covering the snow in a protective textile, but with limited results.
Like many other resorts in the area, Verbier has tried to fight back. Snowmaking, for instance, is now an critical feature of the Swiss resorts’ strategy, with 36% of slopes equipped to that end. Yet, this is a costly solution – a km costs more than CHF 600,000 per year – as well as energy and water intensive. For this reason, its use is restricted to cold days at the beginning of the season.
A second strategy has been to diversify the offer. Verbier and most resorts now offer a wide range of activities, including high-end spas, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Summer activities represent an important opportunity, with mountain biking and hiking topping the list. However revenues from May to October can barely match what is made in one day in February.
What future for the industry?
It is hence clear that the skiing industry will have to change to adapt to this new reality. If some say that over the short-term many Swiss resorts might actually benefit from climate change due to their higher altitude, the benefits might be short-lived: as skiing resorts become fewer, costlier and harder to access, the number of new skiers is likely to fall, thus slashing overall demand. From a climate change perspective, this could be a good thing: skiing itself is an important contributor to climate change, with millions of people flying or driving to the Alps to be shuttled to the mountaintops on power-hungry lifts.
Yet, the consequences on the local population and the environment would be disastrous: after a long and rich history of inhabiting these remote regions, millions would be left with no source of income and forced to flee, leaving the mountains in neglect and paving the way for future natural catastrophes.
For those who live in the Alps, skiing is much more than just a sport.
[Word count: 698]
 UBS, “La Suisse en chiffres, édition 2016/2017 », p. 6
 Vielle & Gonseth, “Modeling climate change adaptation in a computable general equilibrium model: An application to tourism”, Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, 2011
 Swiss Federal Environment Office, “Le réchauffement climatique est déjà visible”, August 20, 2015,
http://www.bafu.admin.ch/klima/13805/15238/15359 , accessed in November 2016
 Serquet, Marty, Dulex, Rebetez, “Seasonal trends and temperature dependence of the snowfall/precipitation day ratio in Switzerland”, Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 38, 2011
 Elsasser & Buerki, “Climate change as a threat to tourism in the alps”, Climate Research, 2002, pp. 20(3), 253-257,
 Verbier Official Website, https://www.verbinet.com/maps, accessed November 3, 2016
 Xavier Lambiel, “Comment le réchauffement climatique transforme les Alpes”, Le Temps, November 19, 2015
 Edwards, “Going green on the white stuff”, Financial Times, Nov 27, 2006
 Serquet, Thalmann, “Impacts des changements climatiques pour le tourisme à Verbier”, 2012