The impact of tourism on Italy's mountains

The impact of tourism on Italy's mountains

A new film by Italian snowboarder and ecologist Luca Albrisi explores empty ski resorts and the impact tourism has on the mountains.

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Luca Albrisi's latest film project began with a couple of false starts. He originally planned to film his movie about a group of friends crossing the Dolomites on skis and splitboards (snowboards that split in two to act as touring skis) in 2019 but there wasn’t enough snow. A problem he describes as increasingly common due to rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis.

Then, in 2020, just before they were about to set off, the pandemic struck, closing ski resorts, and forcing them, like the rest of the world, to shelter in place. A year later, the resorts were still closed but the snow was good, and they could finally film their trip.

Luca’s initial premise had been to show the contrast between quiet, pristine valleys shaped by nature and super-busy ski resorts shaped by humans, teeming with people and lift infrastructure. 

But as they zigzagged up the empty pistes, the static chairlifts above them seemingly frozen in time, the project took on new meaning and significance. Now titled, Across Emptiness, for Luca, it became a meditation through an imaginary space of “what remains of our modernity when it is emptied and laid bare”.

The group, a mix of six snowboarders and skiers, hiked from Marmolada to Cortina, two resorts in the Dolomiti Superski area, finding untouched snow to ride down along the way. “We’re all familiar with these resorts and how crowded they can be,” he says. “We were happy there was no one around and we could have a super cool adventure reoccupying these spaces.”

One night they slept in the resort parking lot, another they bivouacked on the rubber mats where guests usually queue for the gondolas. But amid the joy and excitement of riding empty slopes, Luca also found the experience somewhat eerie and post-apocalyptic. “I reflected a lot on that,” he says. “It feels strong to say but this could be the scenario we will face one day from climate change and just investing in ski resort monoculture.” That is a mountain economy purely based on Alpine skiing and its infrastructure.

Across Emptiness is shot almost entirely in black and white, a decision Luca took to highlight the complexities of these debates around land use in the mountains. “When we talk about big issues, such as ski monoculture, and also, here in Italy, about reintroducing bears and wolves, we always separate into two opposing sides,” he says, with the white side wanting bears and wolves, and the other side not.

“Sometimes it’s not possible to solve a problem without dipping into the complexity and colour of it, so I wanted to reflect that with my choice of aesthetic.” He also wanted to challenge the typical action-heavy ski or snowboard movie in terms of pace, much of the action in Across Emptiness is slow and hypnotic, and palette, as films about outdoor sports are usually all bright colours and high contrast.

“The outdoors is always portrayed with pretty colours and beautiful scenery, and there’s always powder snow,” he says. “But that isn’t realistic any more, especially in the Alps. I wanted this to be more of a real documentary.”

Originally born in Milan, Luca had a love for the mountains that pushed him north to Trento, in the heart of the Italian Alps, where he continued to study philosophy, choosing to write his dissertation on deep ecology, the belief that humans are of equal value to nature and other living things, rather than superior.

In 2018, he released The Clean Approach — Being, Outdoor, one of the first documentaries to examine the relationship between humans and nature through sustainable outdoor sports. Inspired by the positive collective response to the film, Luca and some friends wrote and signed ‘The Clean Outdoor Manifesto’ in 2021, a call to arms, which he hoped would encourage those who love the outdoors to fight for the outdoors, through grassroots environmental activism.

Their bullet-point beliefs include support for a biocentric worldview, opposition to both reducing nature to an economic resource and putting sports or tourism ahead of environmental protection. “Outdoor activities are a really important way for us to go back to being part of nature,” he says. “It’s something I studied a lot when I was younger. Real awareness of deep ecology starts when you realise that we’re not just there to defend something separate, we’re there to defend something we physically belong to as well.”

“When you do an outdoor activity, it’s about focusing not just on the performance but also about the place. Splitboarding or ski touring can get you towards that awareness of being part of nature,” Luca says. It’s a mindset he doesn’t believe you can attain by just reading books or about issues online. “Being there and feeling like you really belong there is an important part of the process,” he continues. But Luca stresses in opposing ski resort monoculture, he’s not saying all ski resorts should close tomorrow with everyone then just freely wandering about in the mountains. “That would be really dangerous and have a big impact on nature,” he says.

In March this year, through The Clean Outdoor Manifesto network, which includes environmental NGOs, and sports community and cultural organisations, he set up a series of protests at 12 different locations across the Italian Alps. Under the banner: ‘Reimagine Winter’ the demonstrations took place at spots where new ski lift developments were planned. “Building new infrastructure for ski tourism is a big topic in Italy, and after two winters with pretty much no snow, the debate is getting bigger and bigger,” he says, especially as water is becoming scarcer.

“In the flat lands of Veneto, we have no water in summer now but also in the mountains you can see that the water is getting lower and lower in the rivers. It’s awakening a lot of people and making them more aware about water use.” Before the demonstration, Legambiente, one of the biggest environmental NGOs in Italy, published a dossier about water usage for ski resorts. The numbers were shocking, he says, adding that Italy produces more artificial snow than other European countries.

I ask why that is? “A lot of funds for the artificial snow came from public money so it might be something they got used to having money for.”

What was the response to the protests? “A lot of articles were written, which didn’t openly talk about the demonstrations, but highlighted how ski resorts and tourists are necessary for the Alps to stay alive,” he says. “I felt these articles were connected to the demonstrations.”

Luca has noticed differences in how people are responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on mountain valleys. “In Milan and other big cities, there are a lot of young people who are prepared to look at it from a scientific point of view,” he says. “Yet in Trento, near here, there are so few people who are taking action, older people might be concerned about jobs [in ski tourism], and the cost of living, anything that looks like it might slow the economy down is seen as the wrong thing to do, but people don’t understand if you don’t change the economic model of ski monoculture, in 10 years you probably won’t have any jobs.”

Instead, he believes the current system should be kept alive for some years, but made more sustainable, with less pollution and fewer cars in the valley. Then step by step, they should try to develop different kinds of tourism. “Covid has meant more people like to come in summer and it’s important to educate visitors on the cultural side of 
these mountain valleys, then they’ll want to come back,” he says. “Whereas if you just offer low prices, people may visit but then the next year they’ll go to the next place that has offered low prices.”

Luca says many Italian ski resorts run at a loss but are kept alive with public funds and he questions the long-term wisdom of such an approach. “In the valley all the money goes into ski tourism, but the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away,” he says. “All that money has to be invested in some other services for the people.”

In a similar vein, the Winter Olympics has been awarded to the Milan-Cortina region for 2026 and Luca’s network is agitating against the huge public funding of the event.

“The crazy thing is we had the Winter Olympics in Turin in Italy in 2006 but instead of using that infrastructure, they want to build everything new with public money,” he says.

One of the most contested developments is the bob-sleigh track, which Luca says will cost over €80m euros, yet the Italian bobsleigh squad has just 15 people. He also says some facilities will require ancient trees to be felled and he worries about the water requirements for the artificial snow, and the carbon footprint of construction.

All this at a time of increasingly evident climate crisis. When I speak to the Across Emptiness director on a video call in the middle of March, he pans his laptop around to show me an empty lift station car park and mountains carpeted in green forest rather than white snow. Conditions which a decade ago would have been unusual are becoming ever more frequent. “This winter we had snowfall at the beginning of the season then nothing at all,” he says. “Last winter was similar.” In the film the director asks: “What remains of our modernity when we have nothing left to sell?”

How is it all affecting him personally? “Snowsports is what I’ve dedicated my life to, so I am feeling that I am really losing something, though of course doing something on the environmental side helps as does coming together with other communities in the same situation.” In the film, Luca reflects that: “Being explorers of our time means having the courage to follow the compass of our survival as it guides us towards a huge change.” A sentiment even those of us who don’t live in the mountains would do well to embrace too.

Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.

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