St. Leonhard Im Pitztal, Austria – In the crisp, bracing air at 11,000 feet, skiers on the Pitztal glacier in Tyrol can see on a clear day as far as Switzerland and Italy, across a breathtaking landscape of snow-capped Alps.
This season, however, few skiers get to enjoy the view. Though Austria is re-opening its ski lifts on Christmas Eve—two days before the whole nation goes into another lockdown against COVID-19—hospitality services remain closed. Effectively, only locals will be leaving their tracks in the fresh, powdery snow, while hundreds of thousands of foreign skiers are shut out.
The peace and quiet—and the pandemic with its associated economic crisis—are coming at a time when many people here and across the Alps are thinking about the future of their region.
Over the past decades, ski lifts helped transform impoverished, isolated mountain villages into lucrative tourism destinations. Now, their economic dependency on the upscale sport could be their ruin. Billions have already been lost since the resorts were closed in March. Should Tyrol’s entire ski season falter, as much as 3 percent of Austria’s Gross Domestic Product could be wiped out, according to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research.
In some ways, the pandemic’s impact on ski resorts offers a glimpse into the future of a climate 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (2 degrees Celsius). By that time, about a third of the Eastern Alps’ resorts won’t be able to open ski lifts by the Christmas holidays, the highest-earning time of the season. For skiing to be viable at all, other resorts will have to produce artificial snow throughout the season.
On top of climate change threatening the future of Alpine skiing, a growing grassroots movement is standing up to the powerful ski industry, arguing that it sacrifices untouched landscapes for ever grander projects that ignore the looming climate crisis.
This is an excerpt from an article by Denise Hruby, originally published by National Geographic.