How mass tourism is endangering the Dolomites | DW Documentary

How mass tourism is endangering the Dolomites | DW Documentary

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The Dolomites. One of the most stunning natural landscapes in the world. Places like “The Three Peaks” have long drawn admirers. But these days, the crowds and traffic jams can be overwhelming. On peak days, there are more than 13,000 visitors. It's our first time here.

It's such a famous place. You can tell by the amount of people - it's packed! Incredible. But take a look: The view speaks for itself. The Dolomites are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so they’re very beautiful! But the burden on nature and the local population has reached a tipping point.

If it exceeds a certain level, of course tolerance goes down. And the people who live here - but who don't directly profit from the whole thing - they don’t just criticize it: They've even started to hate it. A typical morning in high season. The entrance to the 8 km long road to Lake Braies is busy. Mountain guide Erwin Steiner is a member of the local traffic commission. Access to the lake has been restricted, and he wants to see for himself how it’s working.

Not much going on today. Yesterday was busy, and the day before yesterday too. The day before yesterday we were full by 9 a.m. It's going well, they're less nervous this year. This one’s better than last.

Ticket online. Everything is usually full by half past nine. Depending on how it empties out later, guests can reserve parking spaces and drive in. So it's not about keeping people out. It's about organizing things in the valley in such a way that first and foremost, the locals still have a decent life. And that the tourists who do come, find it to be more or less as they imagined it.

Prags is one of the first municipalities in South Tyrol to introduce a control system like this one for visitors. The reason? Almost permanent traffic jams during the high season and over-parked meadows. Now, drivers without a reservation are directed to a makeshift parking lot, where they can try to find a space online.

We've never been there before. I wanted to take my daughter on a short hike up a small mountain and just have a relaxing day. But now it's getting a bit complicated. We had to book an additional shuttle for 10 euros per person to get to the lake. Is that OK? Mass handling, I’d say. They know how to make their money.

It’s also possible to take a bus. It runs every half hour from the nearby train stations in Monguelfo and Dobbiaco. But very few people do. At the end of the valley lies the famous Lake Braies.

For years, this natural beauty has ranked among Instagram’s top hotspots. Photos circulate all over social media. South Tyrol is quite well-known, so we thought we should take a vacation here. I think this is the best view in Italy.

With the blue lake, and in the background, you can see the Dolomites! It’s the perfect view. This is the perfect view in our pre-wedding shoot. It's less crowded than I expected, still a lot of space to move, so I'm totally fine with it. We know it from Instagram and Google and YouTube. And we come from the Netherlands to come here.

And yeah, we use the car to come here. For 12 hours we drive. Erwin Steiner grew up here.

As a professional mountain guide, he depends on tourism. But preserving this nature is crucial too. It’s fitting to use the term “flooded” or maybe “exploded” to characterize the situation on the ground. Tourism has developed continuously in other well-known areas of the world, or even in South Tyrol in general. But the situation here has really grown exponentially in just a few years.

And accordingly, there are challenges that have come with it. Also in terms of transport, because we were not prepared for such a large number of visitors. One irony: Erwin Steiner himself contributed to the tourism explosion, albeit indirectly... when he acted as a stuntman in a popular TV series.

We completely underestimated the impact - I did especially. I'm a bit to blame for the whole thing. It was filmed here and then a lot of Italian tourists came here in the first few years afterwards. For an even more picture-perfect backdrop, the series transplanted the Three Peaks. Early the next morning, Erwin Steiner is preparing for a mountain tour.

He’s taking two women from the area on a true nature experience, even in this touristy area. We’re allowed to come along with our camera. In addition to the early hour, the bad weather is contributing to the fact that it’s quiet this morning at Lake Braies. A rain front is supposed to pass over.

Then it will get better. We’re headed out with Erwin, he'll take us on a cool hike you might not find on your own. Can’t wait! The lake is this area’s obvious hotspot, it’s what most tourists come to see.

But what’s often forgotten is: This is also the starting point for a good number of mountain tours. Erwin chooses one of his special "wild trails" quite literally off the beaten path. We live from tourism, of course, and that’s also important. There are thousands of people here every day.

But I think nature will suffer further if even more infrastructure is built for tourists. He fears that more tourism could scare off his target market - hikers and mountaineers looking to experience pristine nature up close. We wanted to understand the situation better.

So we set out on a trip through the Dolomites and almost immediately come to a stop. The access road to the Three Peaks was already closed that morning, due to overcrowding. The mountain could only be reached on foot or by bus. UNESCO commissioned a study in 2018, to explore conditions here. The study looked at individual hotspots and determined the limits of their "carrying capacity.” In other words: How many tourists can a place tolerate? The study found that Lake Braies could tolerate 2,000 visitors per day.

But on an average day in August, this limit was exceeded sixfold. And on peak days in 2018, more than 17,000 people crowded here. The Prags municipality aims to have a maximum of 5,000 people at the lake at any one time. Measures like these traffic controls are meant to help.

But do they actually work? Or do restrictions on cars lead to even more traffic congestion... merely shifting the problem elsewhere? A traditional village in South Tyrol. Here, there are almost 6,000 beds for guests - and 3,360 residents. The Hotel Santer is located in the Neu-Toblach district. This was once a place where people stopped to change horses on the way to Venice.

Today, the hotel with 130 beds is among the best. Hello Stephanie. Herbert Santer runs this hotel, and one of his daughters works at the reception. It’s a family business.

Santer is also a politician and vice president of the tourist board. Over the past 50 years, entrepreneurs like him turned what was once a farming region into the tourist destination it is today. Celebrities flock here. ....and now let's go to the Pope. That was wonderful, we brought the Christmas tree to Rome. Then I played soccer with Breitner. FC Bayern was my guest at the time. Beckenbauer too.

It was just extraordinary with these people. The 4-star hotel is fully booked. But all guests are out and about, enjoying the beautiful local nature. Herbert Santer is constantly working on new ideas.

The wellness area needs a lot of space so that people don't feel crowded in any way. They need a lot of breathing room. And by opening up to nature, this breathing room is twice as big. There’s this spaciousness.

It’s not just about the space, it’s about the nature. However, he needs enough paying guests to sustain this high level of comfort. And the guests need beds. This could be a sticking point, as the province of South Tyrol instituted a "bed freeze,” designed to limit the number of hotel beds in the region. The "bed freeze" came about as part of the region’s “Tourism 2030+” development concept, the brainchild of councilor Arnold Schuler.

He manages tourism in South Tyrol. He explains that new beds can only be added when old ones are lost. The measure is radical. This upper limit will have an effect. It is already having an effect.

And that means we have to reorient ourselves. The growth rate we have been seeing will no longer be possible. It makes no sense and is counterproductive.

It’s not only the healthy development of tourism that’s important. The approval of the local population is needed too. The number of overnight stays in South Tyrol has risen by some 40% in the last 30 years. From around 23 million to more than 33 million. The number of hotel beds remained comparatively stable.

But there has been a shift from smaller operations to luxury resorts. Renowned Alpine researcher Werner Bätzing questions the effectiveness of restrictions that focus primarily on the number of beds. The “bed freeze” does not solve a whole host of problems in tourism at all. Like the fact that overnight guests in South Tyrol are staying for shorter and shorter periods.

And that small businesses are dying out, namely the 2- and 3-star hotels run by locals, which tend to be down-to-earth and operate relatively sustainably. Meanwhile, the large resorts, the 4- or 5-star hotels, are booming. These are all negative developments that are not influenced at all by the bed freeze. Day tourism is also booming, and it’s not affected at all. In other words, the bed freeze would be one good measure, but it would have to be followed by other measures.

And that’s not happening. The owner of the 4-star Hotel Santer is not overly worried. I believe that this is a new challenge for South Tyrol at the moment. We're seeing a lot of political zigzag. But I think it will resolve itself in the end.

I believe the economy can’t be steered and managed. The economy will develop on its own and make the best of this situation. That's why I believe this is much ado about nothing. The mountain guide Erwin Steiner and the two hikers have now reached open terrain. The rain has let up. And there's no sign of the crowd down by the lake.

If you know your way around, it doesn’t take long to get to a place where there are fewer people. Of course, as locals, we especially like it if we can avoid the crowds, even in peak season. We’ll stay on the path for a while, walk along the trail, and then branch off, cross over without a path, along the grassy ridge, to the climbing route. Erwin Steiner wants to make things even more exciting today with a special climbing route, on the way to the summit.

Solitude and tranquility. The contrast to the crowds 500 meters below at Lake Braies couldn't be greater. Word has gotten around that the area is extremely popular with tourists. And probably, the mountaineer who really wants to get out into nature, does their research. Perhaps they hear that there are so many people here and then think to themselves: “I'm not going there for mountaineering anymore.” It’s almost gotten quieter up here on the mountain.

The rocky summit route opens onto a spectacular view. But then there’s rain again, and a thunderstorm. The wind and weather conditions make further ascent impossible.

Natural World Heritage, up close. But what does receiving the UNESCO designation actually signify? The meaning has gone a little sideways. I have the feeling that a lot more people are coming here because of it. But what that means is more people drive their cars over the passes, and don't really stop to look at the area or experience it by hiking. That's why the UNESCO idea hasn't quite caught on.

A shift in scenery. A visit to Lake Carezza, not far from Bolzano. This beautiful attraction has been off-limits for years.

That was the only way to protect it. This famed mountain lake in the Dolomites can only be viewed like an exhibition in an open-air museum. Marlene Roner has brought her family here today. For years now, the architect has been campaigning to protect the region and its nature from overdevelopment. She’s a municipal councilor, member of the Alpine Club, and is passionate about local heritage conservation. In recent years, the area around Lake Carezza has repeatedly been the site of conflicts: over proposals for a new cable car and other development projects.

Somehow I'm amazed at what has happened in recent years in terms of new buildings and conversions and expansions. I'm surprised at how nature has to be subordinated. I have the feeling that I have to do something about it. Because if I remain silent, I don't feel good.

But when I point out that not everything that's going on is OK, it feels like I’m doing the right thing. You can't always accept everything. Today, Marlene Roner plans to meet representatives of the most important nature and landscape conservation organizations in South Tyrol. They’ll adopt a manifesto for the protection of the Dolomites.

Then, they’ll present this manifesto to lawmakers in the province. The more we install, the more we destroy our very foundations. And psychologically, I think we're losing so much because we're just focused on “more”: How can we build more, stand out more, be the center of attention even more, compete even more with other ski resorts, with other mountain resorts. It's pure competitive thinking, and I think that's what's destroying people. It ruins tourism. It's not good for people.

New facilities at tourist spots attract ever-bigger crowds. The latest project planned for the mountain top? A seven-storey glass tower. The plan was met with great resistance from nature conservation associations and the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation. The idea is now being rethought by the province of South Tyrol. But signs of construction work can still be seen at every turn.

The activists work for different nature and heritage protection associations. They’ve chosen the “Kölner Hütte” as the place to compose their statement. It stands under the landmark Rosengarten mountain range, part of a landscape that is being more and more heavily developed, in a push for more tourism. The group talks about how to stop the development, and how to reach as many people as possible. They are simply staging our landscape. It doesn’t need staging! Some South Tyroleans think it's not enough.

The important thing is that this is not just a gut feeling. Studies prove it. Every survey shows that people come here because of the landscape, because of the authenticity, because of the mountains. So we’re basically ruining the basis of our own quality of life on the one hand, and tourism on the other. They also discuss the new tourism concept, which they don’t think will make much difference.

The papers always talk about the importance of nature and landscape conservation, and environmental protection. But in the end, the problems are buried in the details, in the legislation, and certain regulations when it comes to implementation. And the problem is, then these big ideas no longer apply. In the last couple of decades especially, economic interests have gained the upper hand. The development of the Alps is one direct result and something the South Tyrolean Alpine conservationists want to put a stop to.

The aim of the manifesto is to wake up the population, although some people are already tuned in to these discussions. But there is still a lack of awareness in politics and business. It’s unacceptable that for example, the province of South Tyrol is financing 75% of this cable car. And no climate check was carried out. We already have cable cars that can transport more people up the mountains every day than the number of people living in South Tyrol. And there are already some 35 additional projects waiting in the wings.

When I hear about the Olympics and the rumors that are buzzing around that the ski areas in the Dolomites are to be merged into the largest ski resort in the world, I just don't understand it! What are these people thinking? The Rosengarten mountain range is one of the crown jewels of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has served as an advertising backdrop for South Tyrol for decades. Now, there’s a new, artificial lake, here under the mountain peaks. A reservoir for artificial snow. We meet mayor Markus Dejori in the resort village. Since 2010 he's head of the municipality of Welschnofen, which includes the Lake Carezza area.

How does he deal with the criticism? Many visitors tell us they don’t even notice that there are winter resort operations here, because the slopes are actually located on meadows. They’ve always been meadows. So they’re not the huge forest pistes that have simply been carved out, like in other ski resorts.

The renovation of the ski area is now almost complete. We want people to come to us. We’re a welcoming community. We just need to control the development a little so that it doesn't get out of hand.

The state road will be relocated. Starting next year, it will run to the far end of the parking lot. And the road here will simply serve as a distribution point for pedestrians and cars heading to the parking lot. So next year the situation here should be a bit more streamlined and no longer as difficult.

You’ll be able to get across the street, you’ll know where to park. Parking spaces will also be nicely organized. It’s sort of organized now, but only in a makeshift way. He’s here now because his office got a call saying the parking lot was littered. The mayor decided to go see it for himself.

He cares deeply about the image of his municipality. And he doesn't want tourism in this community to be discredited, either. A couple of tissues and so on, nothing unusual. It will all be gone by tomorrow morning.

The information we received made it sound worse. Well, false alarm! Another sight: Signs of destruction caused by storm Vaia, which knocked down millions of trees in the Dolomites in October 2018. We can see the impact of Vaia here. We’re back on track now. I’d say we're somewhere between cleaning up and then doing the necessary safety, maintenance, and repair work again. It was perhaps a little worse the first year because the areas were completely brown, the color of the earth under the trees.

Now it's starting to turn green again, and some people don't even notice it anymore. So the community is moving on. In fact, a major tourism event is on the horizon: The 2026 Winter Olympics. The games will take place both in Milan and in Cortina D'Ampezzo. The city is located in the Italian province of Belluno, not too far from South Tyrol. New ski slopes have already been built for the occasion.

In South Tyrol, the councilor for tourism, Arnold Schuler, has opted for a different approach. There will be no more new ski lifts here. We’ve reached our limits, and we have to recognize that we are at full capacity already. As I said, we want to remain an attractive tourist destination. Nobody comes here on vacation to sit in traffic jams or stand in queues.

South Tyrol is not alone in its struggle with the dark side of tourism. All throughout the Alps, the relationship between nature and tourism is increasingly fraught. Cultural geographer Werner Bätzing has followed these developments over decades. He lauds some aspects of South Tyrol’s new tourism concept. First of all, I think it's good that the situation is laid bare in a tourism concept like this one.

The strengths and weaknesses of tourism - noise, stench, waste, heavy traffic, the high cost of housing and land. These are all the major problems of tourism which are addressed very clearly in this concept. I would like to see something like this done in Bavaria and in other Alpine regions. This kind of unsparing assessment of tourism.

But will measures be implemented in that same spirit? And whose interests will prevail in the end? In Toblach, the hotel run by Herbert Santer and his son Jürgen, is an example of a tourism concept that focuses on growth. It’s a recipe for success that’s practically part of the family's DNA. It’s crucial to keep investing year after year.

If you don't do that, you won't be able to keep up. The business needs to keep up somehow, become more modern, more interesting, more professional. And we’ve actually shown that, to this day. The problem is there are quotas right now for everything. There’s a quota for the number of beds and for people in the hotspots.

In other words, we’re legislating a bit too much. For me, a free market economy, a social market economy, means that an entrepreneur can develop freely, in every area. I agree with certain rules.

But just going around and imposing quotas, I think that's the wrong approach. Today, a book launch is taking place here, at this scenic location. Marlene Roner is among the attendees. She wants to meet the author. I wanted to connect with you about the big mobility issue.

Happy to! In his book, Michil Costa - himself a hotelier from Corvara - has written a scathing critique about the development of tourism. He believes that South Tyrol is at a tipping point. Why don't we close the Dolomite passes? Because the people in charge lack the courage! I’m also a colleague of yours, and I have some advice and a question. I don't like the fact that we, who work in the tourism industry, are blamed for everything that goes wrong. We’re essentially spitting into a plate we’re all eating from, because we depend on tourism - some more, some less. And as for the bed freeze: Why do we want to build bigger and bigger hotels? That doesn't help.

We can't find any more employees and are only causing ourselves problems. After decades of continuous growth, people here feel an urgent need for discussion. About a bed freeze, and the future of tourism as a whole. It's about mass tourism.

We have a small area, we can't cater to everyone here. We have to set a limit, we have to restrict mobility especially. We want guests to come for the beauty of nature first and foremost. Not for the saunas, or another swimming pool, or another steam bath.

That's all nonsense, we don't need any of that. I drove up at 6 a.m. last week to enjoy the Gardena Pass and Sella Pass in peace and quiet. And today I had to drive up at 2 p.m., and it was terrible.

Cars, motorcycles, buses, cyclists everywhere. Plain and simple - this is not how it should be. My idea would be to follow the American model, where you pay admission to enter a park, a real national park.

So that it doesn't become an amusement park, where you have fun and it's practically a playground. Instead, it’s a place where nature is respected. Because we’re part of nature and we have to protect ourselves. If we don't protect nature, then nature survives quite well without us, I think. So it’s about more than just overcrowding at the hotspots.

Could access to the mountains be blocked? Quotas are not anti-social. Quotas mean that if I want to go to the New Year's concert in Vienna, I have to register three years in advance. Or if I want to go to Bhutan or the beautiful Montecristo Island in Italy, I simply have to reserve in advance. And that means I also appreciate the area.

I would stay longer, spend more time there. Because this fast, mass tourism doesn't do anything for people. And it doesn't do anything for us, the people living here. About a month later, we visit Markus Piccolruaz at his 4-star hotel "Jakoberhof.” The bed freeze has been adopted, and the municipality is now collecting statistics. Unlike his colleague in Toblach, he welcomes the decision in favor of more regulation.

I think that the bed freeze has come at the right time. A lot has happened here in South Tyrol over the last 10 or 20 years. A lot has developed - sometimes for the better, sometimes to an extreme. We have to understand that it will eventually come to an end. Markus Piccolruaz is proud of his hotel, which bears the unmistakable signature of his father, a wood carver.

He is delighted that his daughter will soon be attending hotel management school, so she can take over the business later on. The transition to the next generation doesn't work in all families. And there are already large corporations waiting to buy up businesses.

So the real South Tyrol is getting a little lost. For me, what we should be most afraid of is selling off our homeland. That's a big problem. The larger the hotels become, the more outside capital is involved and the more the locals are squeezed out of the market.

These local businesses have long been indicative of the quality of tourism in South Tyrol. That kind of tourism was down-to-earth. The interesting thing is, the new "Tourism 2030+" concept formulates exactly that, as a goal. It doesn’t call for a marketing strategy, but rather a living space strategy. Tourism should become part of the living space of the locals and not the other way around. The locals should not become window-dressing for the tourist resorts.

On this day in September, an event demonstrates one possible approach. On Sellaronda Bike Day, the Dolomites pass roads around the Sella massif are closed to car traffic. It’s closed, yes. Yes. Marlene Roner is also here - with her husband and children. An event for everyone, not just for tourists. Lots of locals already, right, Florian? It's mainly locals who are out and about.

There’s a mix. Quite a lot of people use it for climbing, although not today because it's snowing. Normally it's total chaos on the passes.

Motorcycles, cars without end. And so you can cycle or climb in nature - without cars. It's the greatest thing for any cyclist when passes like these are blocked to traffic. This cyclist and his friends have taken part in the event before.

He’s thrilled to be back. This is our third day here. All told, we'll be there for four or five days.

And of course today is the highlight. If they’re up for it, cyclists have four mountain passes, 53 kilometers, and a good sixteen hundred meters of altitude ahead of them. Marlene and Florian's sons also have fun - despite the cold and tough uphill ride. It really is such a community feeling, the way everyone enjoys this time. The snow is great! The mountains are great.

A dream! A total dream. So beautiful with the snow. For over 15 years, this event has been held as part of an appeal to stop traffic on the pass roads more often.

A step in the direction of a gentler kind of tourism. The idea is gaining more and more supporters. Bravo, terrific! Well done. They did a great job! And the road closure doesn’t prevent this mountain eatery from getting a lot of business. Two hours later, down in the valley. The cars have reclaimed the roads.

Gerhard Vanzi works in the tourism industry, and lives here in Selva, Val Gardena. He tells us about how people’s attitudes have evolved. These are our friends! When the "Sellaronda Bike Day" was organized for the first time, there was resistance.

Especially from the people running the mountain huts. Some of them threw broken glass on the road to prevent the event from taking place. After many years, they’ve been able to serve so many people and they’re happy the event exists. Gerhard Vanzi knows that every innovation has its opponents. Especially when there’s a fear of losing business.

That's why he’s taking a different approach with his project. We don't want fewer people. We just want people to move differently. And use environmentally-friendly and sustainable means of transport.

Simply to reduce the impact on the environment and on our population. He is pushing for a low-emission zone in the area. This would reduce the share of motorcycles and cars in total traffic from 92 to 42% by 2030. Public transport and cycling, on the other hand, would increase from 8 to 58%.

South Tyrol, Trentino, and Belluno have agreed on common transport goals, to be implemented from 2024. It could be a turning point in transport policy - with far-reaching impact across this Alpine region. But the policies haven’t taken effect yet. Today, mountain guide Erwin Steiner is instructing climbers under conditions that he doesn’t especially enjoy. It does affect me.

But I have the feeling that I'm perhaps more sensitive than others. There's a super nice climbing area here. Easily accessible, but very close to the road. And that means: Noise! For me as a mountain guide, teaching someone something, it's very important to have peace and quiet.

To be able to concentrate and also to have the feeling of being up on the mountain. That’s why I prefer to be up on the mountain pasture, rather than here. For many locals, the peak season is the most stressful time of the year. It's over now and time to take stock.

The checkpoint at the entrance to the Braies Valley has been dismantled. Did the vehicle restrictions help control visitor numbers? There were concerns everything would be blocked by the valley entrance on the stretch of road we’re driving along now. That didn't happen. There was always a bit of an opening, so that no traffic jam formed.

And the goal of limiting the flow of visitors was, in fact, achieved. For many years, the Braies Valley has not been so well perceived, by tourists and locals alike. This year's efforts have certainly proved very successful. So this is how it could work.

South Tyrol is taking the first steps to tackle unbridled tourism, to improve the lives of locals and to protect its natural heritage. Perhaps it could serve as an example for the entire Alpine region.

2024-02-10 14:27

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