Dolomites at a crossroads: learning from Switzerland by Annibale Salsa

Dolomites at a crossroads: learning from Switzerland
by Annibale Salsa

In the run-up to the Milan-Cortina 2026 Winter Olympic Games, public opinion and the environmental community are becoming increasingly focused on the problems of safeguarding our World Heritage Dolomites.

New plans for expanding the ski areas are being presented. On such occasions, old conflicts get rekindled. On the one hand, there are those who want to prevent any initiatives to expand and improve the existing infrastructure. On the other, those who live and work in the mountains regard the limitations imposed by outside bodies as interference in their own land. However, it should be noted that one of the conditions for inclusion on the World Heritage list was that no new connections to ski areas could be built.

But whose are the Dolomites? The question always arises when we’re faced with the problematic relationship between the local and the supra-local. If a particular heritage – inherited and passed on by our forebears – belongs to the whole of Humanity, there is no disputing the legitimacy of the supra-local point of view. However, when it’s a matter of places inhabited for centuries, and shaped by generations that have left deep marks on the man-made “cultural” landscape, the voices of those who live in these areas must be heard and properly considered. The landscape is a dynamic entity, and in order to protect it we cannot put the inhabitants in bell jars to keep them trapped in space and time – as if they were living in permanent “Indian reserves”. If the Dolomites were uninhabited – primordial wild territory – the problem wouldn’t arise. But, excluding the highest peaks in the UNESCO natural heritage site, all the areas below that have been marked by human presence for thousands of years.

So what should we do? Apart from certain preconceived attitudes, which can only lead to time-wasting discussions at the end of which everyone still adheres to their original position, qualities such as reasonableness, good judgement and realism tell us we need to find common ground: an approach that is both respectful of different positions and constructive in proposing solutions. One issue to be negotiated is certainly the idea of setting a “limit”, which could be used to assess the impact of non-compliance in terms of the “boomerang effects” on the quality of the environment and the landscape. Those areas of the Dolomites that have benefited least from winter tourism (especially Cadore/Comelico) and where, as Mauro Corona says, “the snow is not branded”, have experienced a constant exodus of residents and a loss of amenities for the local population.

Certainly, the policies for mountain areas implemented after the Second World War failed to achieve the desired results. The high places have been forgotten and pushed to the limits of habitability. We often speak generically of the Province of Belluno or, incorrectly, just of “Belluno”, forgetting that Cortina d’Ampezzo has a different history behind it. In fact, it was only annexed as recently as 1923 – together with the municipality of Livinallongo (Fodòm/ Buchenstein) and the villages of Arabba and Colle Santa Lucia (La Col). Another factor to consider is that if strict limits are imposed on mobility (mainly in relation to travelling through the passes in summer), such measures could affect the status of places that are very attractive to tourists.

So, instead of all this navel-gazing, why don’t we try looking at a country that has made Alpine tourism such a success, both in Europe and throughout the world?

As we know, Alpine tourism originated in Switzerland, and winter tourism in particular first began in Engadine in Sankt-Moritz in 1864, when a couple of hoteliers, the Badrutt brothers, invited British visitors to spend the winter in the snows around Grisons. This provocative idea proved very successful and from that time onward the Alps became known not only as a summer destination but also a winter resort for skiing. This was the impetus for a speedy building programme, to create links to the tourist resorts. The first intrepid cogwheel mountain railways were constructed, able to manage impressive differences in height (just think of the Pilatus railway above Lucerne, with a gradient topping 48 per cent!). With the passing of the years and the rise in private motoring, the Alpine valleys became increasingly suffocated by both roads and cars. But, once again, the far-sighted Swiss came to the rescue, creating the model of tourist resort where cars are banned but where social prestige and environmental and landscape quality enjoy a massive boost. A restriction turned into an opportunity! These are the eight “senz’auto/ohne auto/sans auto/auto-free” resorts (Zermatt, Saas Fee, Bettmeralp, Riederalp, Murren, Wengen, Stoos, Braunwald), which all form part of a real transport strategy. In the Italian Alps, there is the random example of Chamois in the Aosta Valley, which can only be reached by cable car departing from Buisson (middle Valtournenche). The new infrastructure fits harmoniously into the Swiss landscape, and the ski areas with their ski lift carousels do not spoil the environment and landscape: on the contrary, they produce significant economic benefits for the territories.

In relation to World Heritage Sites, I would like to single out the “Aletsch-Bitschorn system”, which boasts the largest glacier in the Alps – a unique distinction recognised by UNESCO. The area straddles the Cantons of Bern and Valais and contains two resorts (Bettmeralp and Riederalp) complete with ski slopes and ski lifts. However, there is a complete ban on cars and noise nuisance, so the silence of the mountains reigns supreme. What we should learn from the Swiss model – where the mountains have not become depopulated – is that the issue of environmental protection is not a matter of Manichean struggle between a culture of saying “yes” to every laissez-faire, consumerist intervention and a culture of “no”, which simply forbids everything. Rather, we need to adopt a “culture of how” which, while clearly saying “no” in relation to areas of great natural value, would also avoid dogmatic and ideological positions.

So, why could we not transform some resorts in the Dolomites into “auto-free” places where cars are banned and where the means of access (railways) or the lift systems (cableways) are designed just like forms of public transport in an integrated transport system?

Switzerland teaches us that such places manage to combine top quality standards with attracting a high number of tourists to its hotels (e.g. Zermatt). Of course, this requires a single integrated transport strategy, common to every area in the Dolomites and managed by the various provincial and regional institutions.

Ph. @rocketheo – flickr