UNESCO Dolomites: Study for managing access to the most crowded places

There are certain hotspots in the World Heritage Dolomites that are particularly attractive to visitors, leading to excessive pressure on such popular areas as Lake Braies and the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The general overcrowding, queues and noise have an impact on the environment, and affect the quality of the visit and the quality of life of local people. These two hotspots were selected as pilot areas, and limiting their load capacity has been the central theme of an innovative study by the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation and the Department of Economics of the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. The research was presented at a press conference on 16 November by Professor Jan Van der Borg, head of the international research team, together with the President of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, Mario Tonina, the Councillor for the Autonomous Province of Bolzano – South Tyrol, Maria Hochgruber Kuenzer, and the Director of the Foundaton, Marcella Morandini, who chaired the event.

The aim of the study is to promote more sustainable management of visitor flow while respecting the environment, and maintaining the social and economic welfare of local communities. The study will be completed by the end of 2020. Mario Tonina, President of the Foundation and Councillor and Vice-President for the Autonomous Province of Trento, made the following point: “The UNESCO Dolomites Foundation has taken the first step, now it is up to the administrators in these respective areas to act and make political choices.” “We have a responsibility to maintain the ecosystem while also providing the option of finding refreshment, but we must not forget it is the inhabitants who maintain the landscape in these areas, and who also need to protect their own identity”, added Maria Hochgruber Kuenzer, Councillor for the Development of the Territory and Landscape of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano – South Tyrol, and member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Innovative study using big data

The researchers examined data from 2018 in relation to the pilot areas, and big data (anonymised and aggregated data from mobile phones and social media) derived from Vodafone Analytics, TripAdvisor, ISTAT and Bank of Italy. Combining these sources with a series of interviews, they were able to assess the impact of annual visitor flow in the two areas, evaluate their respective carrying capacities (in environmental, social and economic terms), and suggest measures to be taken.

Professor Jan Van der Borg, head of the international research team, outlined the results of the study, and the consequent suggestions with regard to the carrying capacity of the hotspots, pointing out that quantity often conflicts with quality. At Lake Braies, the number of visitors in June-September 2018 far exceeded the carrying capacity of the site, with peak days of over 17,400 people per day, and visitor density of up to 188 people per hectare. At the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, on the other hand, the data indicated peak visitor numbers of over 13,400 people per day. A possible wake-up call is that visitors’ assessment of the quality of their experience is becoming less positive, especially on days when the sites are overcrowded.

Ph. Josef Hackhofer

Recommended carrying capacities

If the Lake Braies area is considered as a natural park, the limit recommended by the World Tourism Organisation is 1,500-2,500 visitors per day, or 4,500-6,000 visitors per day if regarded as a hiking area. With regard to the social carrying capacity, in terms of the experience of people visiting the site, the perceived quality of the visit by tourists and hikers stays at average levels if numbers are limited to 9,000 people per day. For the Tre Cime di Lavaredo area, if considered as a natural park, the recommended limit in terms of natural carrying capacity is 2,700-3,000 people per day, and 7,000-7,500 people per day if regarded as a hiking area. With reference to the social carrying capacity, the perceived quality of the visit by tourists and hikers remains at average levels if numbers are limited to 4000 people per day.

Measures for sustainability

The study contains some clear pointers with regard to management, with controlled access cited as a top priority. Such a process is already underway at Lake Braies, with access by shuttle bus and the requirement to book in advance. For the Tre Cime di Lavaredo area, on the other hand, the report calls for swift action to reduce traffic, drastically limiting the number of cars allowed to access Misurina, and helping people to reach the area by public transport. In addition, the report suggests tailoring the visitor experience and the means of access to suit different categories of people (residents, tourists, hikers, by place of origin, etc.). In particular, it would be a worthwhile strategy to encourage access on foot or by bike, and to penalise the use of private motor vehicles. It would also be useful to create different times for visiting, by seasonal adjustment of tourist flow and greater distribution throughout the area, encouraging people to visit other parts of the UNESCO Dolomites Site. Actions for governance include establishing an observatory for monitoring visitor flow and the various levels of sustainability, as well as encouraging more effective collaboration at local level and setting up a control centre for better interregional governance and the promotion of a shared strategic vision.

Identifying common solutions

As provincial councillor, Maria Hochgruber Kuenzer, pointed out: “Pressure on exceptional – but also fragile and sensitive – areas, has now exceeded tolerable limits. Too many people are concentrated in a few places, at a few times of year. If we exceed the limits, we also jeopardise any future development. Nature suffers, the visitor experience loses its meaning and uniqueness, and questions arise about the quality of life. This is a wake-up call to which we must pay particular heed: the solution is to set limits, and see them as an opportunity. Our task is to manage the situation together by finding common solutions. Scientific data provide an effective basis for achieving this. We must be able to offer people, tourists and residents the quality of life and quality of visitor experience that they expect. Quantity and quality are not reconcilable.”

Lake Tovel in the Dolomiti di Brenta, a new area of research

Mario Tonina, President of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, commented on the research: “This study is the start of an important process of monitoring the Dolomites World Heritage Site, providing us as decision makers with precise and accurate data on which to base our actions. We know how much the Covid-19 epidemic has increased people’s desire to visit mountain areas for recreation purposes. This is one of the reasons we want to continue along the path we have already taken.” The hope is that there will be ever greater awareness of how basic and important it is to ensure effective interregional collaboration at every level, managing this Heritage as a single entity, from the Dolomiti di Brenta to the Dolomiti Friulane. Data for the 2020 season at Braies and the Tre Cime are still in the pipeline, and will show the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on an extraordinary summer. The research method is soon to be extended to another area, Lake Tovel, in the Dolomiti di Brenta.

Ph. Moreno Geremetta