Mountain tourism

Posted: 13 May 2008

After coasts and islands, mountains are the most important destinations for global tourism. Tourists are attracted to mountains for many reasons: the climate and clean air, varied topography, scenic beauty, local traditions, 'simple' lifestyles, and the opportunities to practise sports that require steep slopes or winter snow.

Tiger Leap Gorge (upper Yangtze)
Tiger Leap Gorge (upper Yangtze)
Tiger Leap Gorge (upper Yangtze), Yunnan, South-West China. ©United Nations University Mountain Programme
Mountain tourism is a very diverse phenomenon, involving a great variety of activities, many of which are both seasonal and go in and out of fashion. The many benefits that tourism can bring to mountain communities need to be balanced against negative environmental, cultural, and economic impacts.

  • About 15-20 per cent of the global tourism industry - US$ 70-90 billion per year - is associated with mountain areas. While the Alps alone account for 7-10 per cent of the annual global tourism turnover, modern means of transportation mean that parts of almost every mountain region are tourist destinations.

  • Tourism tends to be very unevenly spread in mountain areas. Even in the Alps, one of the global centres of tourism, 40 per cent of communes have no tourism, and only 10 per cent have large specialised tourist infrastructure. Generally, the former are losing population, while the latter have stable or growing populations.

  • Annual visitors to Gangotri, one of the major pilgrimage destinations in the Indian Himalaya: 3,000 mountaineers and porters, 30,000 trekkers, 300,000 pilgrims.

  • In Bavaria, visitor densities at recreational sites in the mountains, at 150 persons per hectare per year, are almost as high as in recreational forest areas near cities.

  • In the Everest region of Nepal, visitors increased from 20 trekkers in 1964 to over 17,000 in 1996 and 27,000 in 2000. Today, 80 per cent of households derive income from tourism. The high density of trekkers means that 12 per cent of the trail network is severely degraded. It is estimated that there are 17 tons of garbage along every kilometre of trail.

    Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) seen from above Namche Bazar
    Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) seen from above Namche Bazar
    Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) seen from above Namche Bazar, early evening.© United Nations University Mountain Programme

    About 25 per cent of firewood consumption is due solely to tourism - almost 1,000 tonnes of firewood are burned daily during the peak tourist season in 225 lodges. As forests in the national park are protected, this means high levels of deforestation outside the park.

  • The valley of Grindelwald, in the Swiss Alps, has 4,000 residents. On peak days in summer and winter, they are host to up to 20,000 tourists from the Swiss lowlands and all over the world.

  • The 16 mountain national parks of the Republic of Korea cover 4 per cent of the country's total area and attract 30 million visitors a year.

  • The winter sports market is estimated to be 65-70 million people worldwide: including 20 million in North America, 14 million in Japan, and perhaps 25 million in Europe.

Primary sources:

Mountain Agenda (1999) Mountains of the World: Tourism and Sustainable Mountain Development, Mountain Agenda, Bern.

M.F. Price et al (1997), Chapter 12: Tourism and amenity migration, in B. Messerli and J.D. Ives (eds.) Mountains of the World: A Global Priority, Parthenon, New York and London.

Compiled by Dr Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, within Scotland's UHI Millennium Institute, 'creating the University of the Highlands and Islands'.