Tourism in numbers - Europe
Europe is the most important tourist region in the world. According to UNWTO, in 2006 nearly 55% of all international tourist arrivals (461 million) were on the “old continent”.Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region are the favourite holiday destinations in Europe. According to UNWTO, in 2006 about 165 million tourists visited these regions (25).
At present, the predominant summer tourist flows in Europe are from north to south, to the coastal zone. However, coastal and mountain tourism are the segments that are most vulnerable to climate change, and the Mediterranean region is the world's most popular holiday region: it attracts some 120 million visitors from northern Europe each year, the largest international flow of tourists on the globe, and their spending is in excess of EUR 100 billion (23).
Tourism in numbers - France
In terms of international tourist arrivals, France is the world's favourite holiday country. According to UNWTO, in 2006 79 million travellers arrived there (9.3% share of the world market in 2006). Only 36% of tourists in France are foreigners. This figure is considerably lower than in Spain and Portugal, which are much more focused on seaside holidays. In France, tourism accounts for around 9% of GDP, roughly in line with the global average (25).
Tourism in numbers - The Alps
The Alps are also among the most visited regions. About 60-80 million people visit the Alps each year as tourists. Tourism activities in the Alps generate close to EUR 50 billion in annual turnover and provide 10-12% of the jobs (5,9). There are over 600 ski resorts and 10,000 ski installations in the Alps. France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy provide over 85% of Europe’s skiing area. France has the highest winter season turnover of all these four countries (5,10).
19 % of the area faces increasing economic problems. For 18% of the area, the economy, settlements and cultural heritage are breaking down as people leave (12). This is particularly the case in southern France, some parts of Italy (e.g. Piemont) and Slovenia. Only tourism can reverse this trend but the number of tourists visiting the Alps has either been constant or decreasing since the 1980s. In these areas forests move into grassland and the area becomes less attractive for tourism (13).
Vulnerabilities – In general
There are four broad categories of climate change impacts that will affect tourism destinations, their competitiveness and sustainability (24):
- Direct climatic impacts
- Indirect environmental change impacts. Changes in water availability, biodiversity loss, reduced landscape aesthetic, altered agricultural production (e.g., wine tourism), increased natural hazards, coastal erosion and inundation, damage to infrastructure and the increasing incidence of vector-borne diseases will all impact tourism to varying degrees.
- Impacts of mitigation policies on tourist mobility. Policies that seek to reduce GHG emissions will lead to an increase in transport costs and may foster environmental attitudes that lead tourists to change their travel patterns.
- Indirect societal change impacts. Climate change is thought to pose a risk to future economic growth and to the political stability of some nations. Climate change is considered a national and international security risk that will steadily intensify, particularly under greater warming scenarios. Tourists, particularly international tourists, are averse to political instability and social unrest.
Vulnerabilities - Trends in the past
It was the winters with little snow at the end of the 1980s (1987/88–1989/90) that caused a stir (1,8). The big difference to earlier periods with little snow was that the capital intensity of ski tourism had considerably increased. The snow shortage at the end of the 1980s left a clear mark on the tourist trade. The earnings of cable-way companies decreased by 20% compared to the ‘normal’ winter of 1986/1987. Particularly affected were smaller companies at lower and medium altitudes (1).
Due to changing climate conditions, the overall number of lifts in the Alps is slightly decreasing and in areas at low altitudes ski-resorts are already closed or will be closed in the near future (11).
A number of companies in regions above 1700 m achieved good and even first-rate results due to the lack of snow at lower and medium altitudes. The slump in the hotel and holiday-apartment trade was less pronounced, as they also accommodate non-skiers. Hotel rooms and holiday apartments also tend to be booked quite a long time in advance. The question does arise, however, as to how long tourists will remain loyal to a location and keep returning to it if they are repeatedly confronted with inadequate snow conditions (1).
Glacier retreat and permafrost thaw have induced major changes to iconic mountaineering routes in the Mont-Blanc area with impacts on mountaineering practices, such as shifts in suitable climbing seasons, and reduced route safety (33).
Vulnerabilities – Projections for the future
A large proportion of tourism in France is largely independent of climate. Overall, tourism in France could benefit from climate change. Higher temperatures and lower levels of precipitation on the French Atlantic coast could extend the summer season and make the sometimes harsh climate more pleasant for sea and sand holidays (25).
A recent Europe-wide assessment has identified increasing losses in winter tourism due to reduced snow cover and the increased exposure of settlements and infrastructure to natural hazards as the primary vulnerabilities to climate change in the Alps (5).
Under present climate conditions, 609 out of the 666 (or 91%) Alpine ski areas in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland can be considered as naturally snow-reliable. The remaining 9% are already operating under marginal conditions. The number of naturally snow-reliable areas would drop to 500 under 1°C, to 404 under 2°C, and to 202 under a 4°C warming of climate. This is the first systematic cross-country analysis of snow-reliability under climate change for the Alps and covers more than 80% of the skiing domain (5).
The experience acquired by Swiss ski resorts shows that a ski resort can be considered snow-reliable if, in 7 out of 10 winters, skiing is possible on at least 100 days between December 1 and April 15 (2). It is estimated that the snowline, as well as the line of natural snow-reliability, will rise by 150 m with 1°C warming (6). On this basis, climate change could result in a 150 m, 300 m and 600 m increase in the altitude of the natural snow-reliability for 1, 2 and 4°C of warming (5).
The duration of snow cover is expected to decrease by several weeks for each °C of temperature increase in the Alps region at middle elevations (14). At the most sensitive elevation in the Austrian Alps (600 m in winter and 1400 m in spring) and with no snowmaking adaptation considered, a 1°C rise leads to four fewer weeks of skiing days in winter and six fewer weeks in spring (15). A 2°C warming with no precipitation change would reduce the seasonal snow cover at a Swiss Alpine site by 50 days/yr, and with a 50% increase in precipitation by 30 days (16).
Sensitivity to climate change varies markedly among the Alpine countries. Germany is most sensitive, with only a 1°C warming leading to a 60% decrease (relative to present) in the number of naturally snow-reliable ski areas. Practically none of the ski areas in Germany will be left naturally snow-reliable under a 4°C warming. Switzerland, meanwhile, is the least sensitive of the five countries, with a 1°C warming leading to only a 10% decrease, while a 4°C warming would lead to a 50% decrease (relative to present) in the number of naturally snow-reliable areas. There will also be “winners” and “losers”, both in terms of regions and in terms of the ski areas themselves, with low-lying ski areas being considerably more vulnerable than areas with high altitudinal range (5).
Winter sport French Alps
Winter sports tourism in the French Alps could be left largely unscathed by climate change for the moment. Many important ski areas are at high altitude: until 2030 lack of snow should normally either be no problem or could be compensated for by artificial snow production. Some of the glaciers provide year-round reliability for winter sports activity. In addition, substitution effects from other ski areas in the European Alps could mean that the winter sports areas in the French Alps will gain. In contrast, the reliable snow cover in the French Pyrenees is noticeably reducing (15).
Many of the Austrian ski areas have low base points. With climate change the natural snow-reliability of Austrian ski areas will reduce substantially. The lack of higher altitudes in many of the Austrian mountain ranges makes it impossible to operate on high-elevation sites. The Swiss ski areas will be least affected in the Alps. For Germany, the low-lying ski areas of Bavaria will be highly affected. In France and Italy many ski areas operate at fairly high altitudes (5).
In the French Alps, 143 skiable resorts currently have a low snow depth. In the event of warming by +1°C, this will be the case for only 123 resorts: for 96 resorts if warming reaches 2°C and for only 55 resorts in the event of warming by 4°C (26).
Changes in mean winter snow water equivalent (SWE), the seasonal evolution of snow cover, and the duration of the continuous snow cover season in the European Alps have been assessed from an ensemble of regional climate model (RCM) experiments under the IPCC SRES A1B emission scenario (27). The assessment was carried out for the periods 2020–2049 and 2070–2099, compared with the control period 1971–2000. The strongest relative reduction in winter mean SWE was found below 1,500 m, amounting to 40–80 % by mid century relative to 1971–2000 and depending upon the model considered. At higher elevations the decrease of mean winter SWE is less pronounced but still a robust feature. Major impacts for winter tourism in the Alps are expected. Many ski-regions have mean elevations below 2,000 m and are therefore especially vulnerable to climate change (27).
Winter sport Pyrenees
The vulnerability of the Pyrenean ski resorts to projected changes in the snowpack under various future climate scenarios has been analyzed (28). The Pyrenees is a 450-km-long mountain range comprising the northern part of Spain, the southern part of France, and Andorra. Altitude ranges from 300 m to over 3000 m. The Pyrenees is the most important winter tourism region in Europe after the Alps (29). The elevation of the Pyrenean ski resorts ranges from 1350 to 2700 m with a mean elevation of approximately 1950 m.
A shorter ski-season length is projected especially in low-altitude ski resorts in a moderate climate change scenario (the so-called SRES B2 scenario: 2°C increase at the end of the 21st century) and for all ski resorts in a more intensive climate change scenario (the so-called SRES A2 scenario: 4°C increase at the end of the 21st century) (28).
Average minimum snow depth to operate a ski resort is assumed to be 30 cm (30). Ski resorts reaching the 30-cm threshold during at least 100 days per winter season (natural and artificial snow combined) are considered as being reliable. At present, 83% of the ski resorts are considered naturally reliable in an average winter season, and 98% when snowmaking capacity is taken into account. Assuming a future increase of 2°C in winter mean temperature, this share would be reduced to 44 % (85% including snowmaking). Under 4°C winter temperature increase the total share of reliable ski resorts in the Pyrenees would be dramatically reduced to only 7% (and no improvement with snowmaking) (28).
Snowpack is most affected by climate change in the eastern part of the Spanish Pyrenees; south-oriented slopes are most vulnerable. Pyrenean ski resorts closer to the Atlantic Ocean, located at higher elevations, and/or with northerly orientation are most resilient (28). Spatial distribution of snow in mountain areas is characterized by high variability within very short distances due to complex interaction between meso-scale meteorology, local topography, and weather factors (31).
Snowmaking cannot completely solve the problem for all ski resorts in the Pyrenees, as the measure can only act as a robust adaptation strategy in the region provided climate change is limited to +2 °C snowmaking (28).
Adaptation strategies – In general
Climate change is slowly entering into decision-making of a range of tourism stakeholders (e.g., investors, insurance companies, tourism enterprises, governments, and tourists); studies that have examined the climate change risk appraisal of local tourism officials and operators have consistently found relatively low levels of concern and little evidence of long-term strategic planning in anticipation of future changes in climate (24).
There is also some evidence that local tourism operators may be overestimating their adaptive capacity (e.g., capacity to make snow under the warmest scenarios). The incorporation of adaptation to climate change into the collective minds of private and public sector tourism decision-makers (‘mainstreaming’) remains several steps away (24).
The capacity of the tourism sector to adapt to climate change is thought to be relatively high due to its dynamic nature and therefore there will be important opportunities for tourism to reduce the vulnerability of communities to climate change (24).
Adaptation strategies - France
While some regions may be able to maintain their winter tourism with suitable adaptation strategies, others would lose all winter tourism due to a diminishing snow pack. Despite global warming, it is impossible to exclude the possibility of winters with heavy snowfall in the future. Climate change must be viewed as a catalyst that is reinforcing and accelerating the pace of structural changes in tourism (1).
Climate change is already affecting the strategies and plans of the winter sport resorts today. Climate change and global warming, together with international competition, have been used as the key arguments for constructing artificial snow-making facilities, as well as for extending existing ski runs and opening new ones in high alpine regions (at above 3000 a.s.l.) (1).
The winter tourism industry has responded to the implications of observed changes, and a range of technological and behavioural adaptation measures have been put into practice. Artificial snow-making remains the dominant adaptation strategy. Other measures include grooming of ski slopes, moving ski areas to higher altitudes and glaciers, protecting against glacier melt with white plastic sheets, diversification of tourism revenues, and the use of insurance and weather derivatives (5).Also, withdrawal from ski tourism at lower elevations may be necessary. Swiss Banks, for example, now only provide very restricted loans to ski areas at altitudes below 1500 m (7).
Adaptation measures also have costs, as well as limits. Snow-making has proven cost-effective, but such estimates are based only on the direct financial costs to ski operations and do not include the potential externalities of such practices on water consumption, energy demand, landscape, or ecology. Furthermore, snow-making costs will increase non-linearly as temperatures increase – and if ambient temperatures increase beyond a certain threshold snow-making will simply not be viable (5).
Likewise, grooming of ski slopes can reduce the minimum snow-depth required for ski operations by 10 or 20 cm. However, no amount of grooming can overcome significant declines or the total absence of snow cover. Similarly, plastic sheets have been shown to be cost-effective in protecting glacier mass, but there are limits to the area that can be covered by such sheets and they cannot prevent the eventual disappearance of glaciers if warming trends continue (5).
Insurance, meanwhile, can reduce the financial losses from occasional instances of snow-deficient winters, but cannot protect against systemic long-term trends towards warmer winters (5).
Climate change will cause shifts in offer and demand as well as shifts in the regions of origin of guests. Some touristic destinations will lose in attractiveness, others will profit from new opportunities. By adjusting their offer, tourist destinations may develop new core competences, and new guest groups may be attracted (4).
Promising development models for the Swiss tourism industry are the concentration of winter sports in top destinations, the promotion of wellness-centres in the mountain region, and the diversification of attractions offered for summer recreation. These examples illustrate that adaptation takes place in a dynamic context, where minimising the cost of damage caused by climate change goes hand in hand with the search for innovative business opportunities (4).
In the national strategy of France the following adaptation measures are recommended (26):
- diversification of activities and revenue sources in winter (excluding skiing);
- development of four-season tourism, in order to reduce dependency on snow;
- diversification of activities in seaside resorts.
Examples of shut down of ski resorts
An Example of successful withdrawal from ski tourism is Gschwender Horn in Immenstadt, Bavaria. At the beginning of the 1990s, after a series of snow-deficient winters, the municipality, together with the Allianz Umweltstiftung, decided to withdraw from the non-profitable ski operation. The facilities (two ski lifts and a transportable children’s lift) were dismantled, the ski runs (approximately 40 hectares) re-naturalised. Today, the area is used for summer and winter tourism, namely hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing and ski touring (17).
The city council of Abondance in the French Alps - its name a cruel reminder of the generous snowfall it once enjoyed – has decided to shut down the ski station that has been its economic raison d'etre for more than 40 years. The reason: not enough snow. Abondance (at 930 meters) falls in the altitude range climate scientists say has seen the most dramatic drop in snowfall in recent generations (20). Whether this shut down is due to climate change or not is disputed (21,22). Other factors, such as incomplete investments (€ 5.3 million in a mixed chairlift/telecabine without snowmaking on the pistes below) may be far more important than global warming (21).
There are 20 other lowlying Haute Savoie resorts that some say are on the brink of closure. A report last winter by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that the number of ski resorts in the department will fall from 37 to 18 if poor conditions continue (22).
Winter sport Pyrenees
Snowmaking cannot completely solve the problem of ensuring snow cover at low elevation ski resorts, and should only be considered as a suitable short-term strategy, rather than a sustainable long-term adaptation strategy. Even if the climatic conditions are favourable to produce snow efficiently, snowmaking can turn into an uneconomic adaptation strategy for some ski operators (security of water supplies, infrastructure and energy costs) and an unacceptable state of affairs for the ecosystem services in some regions (32). Snowmaking cannot completely solve the problem for all ski resorts in the Pyrenees, as the measure can only act as a robust adaptation strategy in the region provided climate change is limited to +2 °C snowmaking (28).
The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for France.
- Elsasser and Bürki (2002)
- Bürki (2000), in: Elsasser and Bürki (2002)
- Meier (1998), in: Elsasser and Bürki (2002)
- Federal Office for the Environment FOEN (Ed.) (2009)
- Agrawala (2007)
- Föhn (1990); Haeberli and Beniston (1998), in: Agrawala (2007)
- Elsasser and Burki (2002),in: Agrawala (2007)
- Marty (2008)
- BMU (2004), in: European Environment Agency (EEA) (2005)
- Bätzing (2003) , in: European Environment Agency (EEA) (2005)
- Güthler (2003), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Bätzing ( 2003); Kanatsching and Weber (1998), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Bader and Kunz (1998), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Hantel et al. (2000); Wielke et al. (2004); Martin and Etchevers (2005), all in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Hantel et al. (2000), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Beniston et al. (2003), in: Alcamo et al. (2007)
- Föhn (1990), in: Elsasser and Bürki (2002)
- Allianz Umweltstiftung (2005),in: Agrawala (2007)
- Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (2010)
- EEA, JRC and WHO (2008)
- UNWTO, UNEP and WHO (2008)
- Deutsche Bank Research (2008)
- ONERC (2007/2009)
- Steger et al. (2013)
- Pons et al. (2015)
- Vanat (2014), in: Pons et al. (2015)
- Witmer (1986); Abegg et al. (2007); Scott et al. (2008); Steiger (2010), all in: Pons et al. (2015)
- Green and Pickering (2009), in: Pons et al. (2015)
- Pons et al. (2012)
- Mourey and Ravanel (2017); Mourey et al. (2019), both in: IPCC (2019)