Why choose the Alps for your next summer adventure
With new hotels and a raft of outdoors activities taking in lakes, peaks and forests, the Alps offer a wealth of alternatives to the traditional summer beach break.
When picturing the Alps, most travellers conjure snowy scenes. Europe’s most extensive mountain range has become defined by its world-class ski resorts, regular host to the Winter Olympics. But until the mid 1800s, the Alps were a summer playground. Immortalised by artists such as Turner and Sargent, and beloved of Grand Tour travellers and a golden era of summit-vanquishing mountaineers, the Alps were where summer was at. During the calendar’s colder months, British travellers were heading to Europe’s southern coastlines, seeking water cures and Cote d’Azur winter sunshine.
Then seasonal habits shifted. Monied Victorian travellers were tempted to winter in the Alps’ cosy, well-catered chalets, famously led by enterprising St Moritz hotelier Johannes Badrutt, who offered to host the first have-a-go snow season tourists from England. But it was the advent of affordable package tourism in the mid 1900s that sealed the deal for summer supremacy in Europe’s beach resorts. But is the direction of travel once again on the move?“
More and more, clients are seeking out Alpine holidays during the summer months,” says Carolyn Addison, head of product at luxury travel company Black Tomato. “People are swerving the crowds in peak winter season and looking at summertime in the Alps to be immersed in the mountain air, with plenty of ways to be active in nature. We’re seeing a surge in demand for slow travel, relishing the outdoors and escaping the increasingly baking summer heat in other European destinations.”
The company says that rooms booked in the Dolomites almost tripled from 2021 to 2022. And while 2021 bookings were a mix of summer and winter stays, for 2022, almost all were for summer. The Alps — like many of Europe’s wilderness areas and national parks — benefitted from a pandemic-led boom.
“We’ve seen an increase in the popularity of summer travel to the mountains over the last few years,” says Joanna Laforge, co-owner of regional specialist tour operator Ski France. “It increased dramatically after Covid-19, with French clientele looking for holiday options when travel was restricted, meaning the idea of open space, fresh air and a change of pace in the mountains proved very popular. This increase is now happening with the UK market, too. Our chalet and apartments bookings for summer 2023 are already up on last year.”
Many of the operator’s accommodation offerings now come with mountain activities included in rental costs, or the chance to buy affordable passes for lifts, mountain bike parks and watersports on lakes and rivers.
This year, according to France Montagnes, an association of French mountain tourism operators, there’s a strong interest in slow tourism, which is focused on low-impact travel, being close to nature and staying longer in one place. Plus, trips exploring wide open spaces, authentic cuisine and craftsmanship. “Summer is the perfect season to discover the mountains,” says François Gaillard, managing director of France Montagnes. “With over 80 different activities — from yoga and hiking to biking and climbing — there’s bound to be a mountain to suit you. Our offering is diversified, inclusive and adapted to all budgets.”
Alpine accommodation is certainly more diverse than it once was. Out go functional ski chalets and in come new ‘poshtels’ such as the fun-focused RockyPop in Flaine, and Base Camp Lodge in Les 2 Alpes, offering hostel prices with design hotel trimmings. Eco-minded accommodation, with zero-miles cuisine, has also boomed over the last decade, from off-grid glamping to farm stays and holistic mountain retreats such as Alikats in Morzine, with its focus on yoga and nature hikes.
A mountain setting is the raison d’être for a slew of high-end spa hotel openings across the Alps in recent years, notably in the Dolomites, including the likes of Hotel de Len in Cortina, Lefay Resort & Spa in Pinzolo and Cesa del Louf in Arabba. While located in ski towns, spa hotels are increasingly focused on year-round tourism, offering forest bathing, mindfulness hiking and other healthy outdoors pursuits.
Access all areas
With Europe’s rail routes expanding, a big part of the Alps’ appeal is their increasing accessibility. “We’ve seen real growth to Alpine regions this year, with sales up by 35%,” says Simon Wrench, senior brand manager at slow travel specialist Inntravel. “There’s a particular draw to the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, which is being fuelled in part by more people electing to travel by train. Those heading to Bavaria are overnighting in Munich to ensure that the most spectacular scenery is approached during daylight,” says Simon. “For Austria, combining Eurostar services to Amsterdam and the highly efficient NightJet sleeper service to Innsbruck and Vienna, is proving to be a popular choice for a relaxed way of travelling.” When comparing pre-pandemic sales in 2019 with early spring 2023, Inntravel reports that demand for ‘summer by rail’ has increased by 85%, but ‘summer Alpine travel by rail’ has increased by a whopping 300%.
No-fly, low-carbon travel options are driving demand to the region, where countries like Switzerland are home to the world’s highest density of public transportation, allowing for sustainable ways to explore the Alps. Swiss panoramic trains, over 80% powered by hydroelectric, are increasingly popular with British travellers, as are its numerous cogwheel trains, gondolas and funiculars. “We do see increasing interest in the Swiss Alps as a summer destination from abroad, including tour operators in the UK,” says Alex Herrmann, director of Switzerland Tourism UK & Ireland. “Wild swimming is hugely popular, and the fact that nearly every lake and river in Switzerland is clean, even in the heart of the cities, makes Switzerland every wild and [urban] swimmer’s dreamland.” Half of all British travellers to Switzerland now arrive in the sunny months of the year. “But even during high season most places don’t get busy,” says Alex.
While the Swiss have historically led the world in mountain-spanning engineering, advances in cable car links across the Alps are making its formidable peaks, traditionally the preserve of experienced Alpinists, accessible to all. The last decade has seen a trend for regional ski resorts to link up with cable cars connecting mountaintop destinations, which are otherwise prohibitive distances apart. Examples include border-hopping marvels such as the Vallée Blanche cable car, which goes from the Aiguille du Midi in France to Pointe Helbronner in Italy, and the 2023 launch of the Matterhorn Glacier Ride, the highest continuous Alpine crossing by cable car, linking Zermatt in Switzerland with Cervinia in Italy.
Driven by the need to offer wider terrain to skiers, allowing them to scope out snow cover as winter becomes less reliable, come summer, these new lift links open up vast areas for hikers and bikers. But can the region sustain the increased traffic?
According to WWF figures, some 120 million people visit the Alps annually. Winter visitors still dominate but with snowfall far less reliable, notably at lower altitudes, local businesses and operators have to look beyond the winter months for income. Biking is big business with numerous new mountain bike parks, e-bike routes, and festivals launched in recent years in the likes of Verbier, Tignes and Val d’Isere.
Visitors to the Alps are largely drawn by its biodiverse, wild natural environment. But it’s an area of the world that’s extremely fragile. Cable car construction, for one, damages the very landscape visitors are drawn to.
The Alps are also highly sensitive to climate variability, its ecosystems and remote communities vulnerable to unusual weather changes, experiencing shrinking glaciers, avalanches and floods. As summer ice declines, mountain terrain becomes more unstable. In summer 2022, a sudden collapse on the Marmolada glacier in Italy killed 11 hikers, while several guides on the Tour du Mont Blanc trail stopped ascents due to dangerous rockfall. Tourism on the Mont Blanc circuit has become notorious for overcrowding, with critics including the Mayor of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, the village from which climbers make their summit ascent.
But for all the mass engineering projects and high-profile mountain trek circuits, there are an equal number of initiatives championing local travel on a small scale. The Bergsteigerdörfer Network of ‘mountaineering villages’ promotes Alpine communities as hubs for adventure-seeking travellers. It includes hamlets that have eschewed large-scale resorts and summit-scaling cable cars in favour of businesses that promote culture and traditions, while preserving mountain landscapes. Since its launch in Austria in 2008, it has grown to include 36 high-altitude villages across Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Slovenia, where travellers can go hiking, biking, climbing and lake-swimming, staying in characterful mountain accommodation where your money goes directly back into the local community. Alpine Pearls is another example, a network of 27 regions that can be navigated via carbon-free travel including e-Bikes, free shuttle services and electric boats.
“The Alps could enjoy a strong future beyond skiing,” says Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO at Responsible Travel. “No one wants to see traditional ski resorts fail and local communities pay the price. It’s very much in their interest to start adapting now. But it’s important not to just switch to a summer mindset. There’s plenty to do year-round, and spreading it out benefits local communities.” “Consider a lesser-visited area and staying in local-owned accommodation, even a homestay,” says Justin. “And take the train to enjoy a proper slow-travel adventure. If your trip is benefitting the area you visit, you’ll probably enjoy a far richer experience too.”
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