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Alps Under Stress

Background Information

The Alpine environment

The altitude, relief and land forms of the Italian Alps have a significant influence on life in Livigno.

There are good geographical reasons why Livigno appeals so much to skiers. The district includes the highest permanently inhabited places in Europe - 2450 metres above sea level. The higher it is, the colder it is and the longer the snow stays. Here in the heart of the Italian Alps, it is still winter in early April and the temperature is -15C at 10.30 pm. By the standards of the High Alps, Livigno's valley is very broad and spacious. There's plenty of room for building on the valley floor, and the slopes on the valley sides are unusually gentle, offering extensive areas of easy skiing for beginners.

That Livigno has this 'tactical advantage' over many other ski resorts is thanks to a very simple fact of physical geography. About a million years ago, the valley was much steeper and deeper, cut by a river. Then came the Ice Age, and a very wide, powerful glacier smoothed out and broadened the valley. When the ice retreated the valley had been transformed - it had a flat bottom and gradual slopes on either side, ideal for the Alpine tourism that would hit the area in the late twentieth century.

This valley may have once contained a glacial lake; deposition on the lake bed would have helped extend the flat floor and gentle lower slopes at the valley sides.

Winter sports and their economic multiplier effect

For Livigno, as for most winter resorts in the Alps, skiing is the primary generator of income. Huge numbers pay to ski on its slopes.

However, Livigno now earns far more from all the activities and services which have sprung up to support skiing. These are known as 'spin-offs' or 'knock-on' or 'multiplier' effects.

At the height of the winter season there can be as many as 40,000 visitors - outnumbering the locals by 40 to 1. Skiing has a huge multiplier effect on an economy. There are probably more spin-offs from this than from any other sector of the tourist industry. Everybody needs special clothing, and everybody goes skiing - even toddlers! The equipment is an industry in itself - a multi-million pound one. New gadgets keep appearing, such as a system whereby your ski pass sends an infrared beam to a sensor in the gate. With every new ski lift, a few more tons of steel climb up the slopes.

It's with jobs, however, that the multiplier effect is felt most strongly. Tourism is one of the most labour-intensive economic activities. Livigno relies heavily on outsiders to staff the boom. Most jobs are in hotels, restaurants and bars, shops and entertainment, and of course skiing instruction and management of ski-runs.

Economic transformation

Before tourism took off, some locals were quite ignorant of the outside world. They didn't read; there wasn't a radio or a television at home. The only thing to do was work and make your own entertainment.

It wasn't just the surrounding high peaks that kept Livigno isolated in the past; it was as much to do with the village's unusual position. The road east to the rest of Italy was and still is cut off in winter at two very high passes. Likewise, the road south is blocked from December until May. The only way in or out was a rough track to Switzerland negotiable only by horse. People left home in the morning at 3.30 or 4.00 and came back in the evening at 8.00.

Change can be dramatic and sudden. What has happened here in Livigno's valley is probably one of the biggest landscape changes in the whole of Italy in the last thirty years. In one generation, a tiny, remote agricultural settlement has transformed itself into one of Europe's most popular ski resorts. The Swiss have built a hydroelectric dam across the river ten kilometres from the village. In compensation for the disruption, a tunnel was built through the mountains to link Livigno with the Swiss national road system. Twenty kilometres of new road protected by snowsheds was built to link the tunnel with the village. The 'Little Alpine Tibet' - Livigno's nickname for many years - got what it had always wanted: a route in and out that worked all year round. It was like the flood gates opening. The outside world poured in and the locals ventured out to new places and new experiences.

Impact of change on society and economy

Locals are pleased with the prosperity of recent years, but are less happy about the impact on local life. They say people have less time for themselves, and less time to be together, to stop and talk in the street, than they used to. The change has been very marked, and it has been felt by families.

There is serious traffic congestion in and out of the valley.

Few can now live by farming. Too much land has been given over to building and skiing for farms to be viable. People have lost their agricultural traditions and skills. They are now utterly dependent on tourism.