UNWTO Hon SG Frangialli: Mountain Tourism’s Worst Enemy is Tourism

Prof. Francesco Frangialli, Hon UNWTO Secretary General

The Hon. Secretary-General of the UN World Tourism Organization, Francesco Frangialli, resides in the French mountains and recently discussed mountain tourism in a China News Service interview. Franigialli was a three-term UNWTO Secretary General and has been outspoken in the last few years against irregularities that continue to unfold in UNWTO under the current leadership. He is one of the most respected global tourism leaders, warning that tourism is the worst enemy of mountain tourism.

Francesco Frangialli discusses mountain tourism in a recent China News Service interview.

International Mountain Tourism Day will be celebrated at the Sheraton Nice Airport in France. The event was first initiated by the International Mountain Tourism Alliance.

It is a global commemorative day on May 29, 1953, the date when humanity first reached the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.

With strong support from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People’s Republic of China, UN Tourism, and other relevant institutions and international organizations, the event has been successfully held for five editions.

Over the past five years, amidst a complex and diverse backdrop, IMTA has tirelessly explored and practiced mission implementation, platform construction, brand development, and mechanism innovation.

On May 29th, 2019, the Launching Ceremony of International Mountain Tourism Day and Mountain Tourism International Forum (Nepal), themed “Ecology, green, science & technology lead the high-quality development of mountain tourism,” was successfully held in Kathmandu.

Francesco Frangialli’s interview on Mountain Tourism

Mountain tourism development

To answer your question, we must examine what makes mountain tourism specific. This branch of the tourism industry offers two major characteristics.

The first one comes from the climate, the elevation, and the differences in altitude. Except in the Northern latitudes, like the three North-East provinces of China, hills and lower mountains are not suitable for practicing skiing and other snow or ice-based sports. But that kind of natural setting, with its extraordinary landscapes, is a paradise for ecotourism based on the existence of a rare biodiversity. It offers a privileged environment for many outdoor sports and leisure activities, from Alpine to Nordic skiing, trekking to horse-riding, mountain biking to rafting, and other water sports.

The second characteristic concerns people. Highlanders mostly live in valleys. Because of the constraints of the topography, communications used to be difficult between communities, and human settlements often remain scattered over large territories. Even if people share the same origin, languages and cultural traditions can differ substantially from one valley to another and, even in the same area, from one village to another.

When combined, these two specificities result in a response to what people are looking for in large numbers: in a uniformized global society, there is a call for cultural authenticity and for rediscovering one’s own roots.

Mountain tourism gaining popularity.

Mountain tourism follows the path and pattern of international tourism as a whole but in an accelerated manner. People living in big cities, having explored all the possibilities offered by sea, sun, and sand tourism, are now looking for other options to enjoy vast spaces, unspoiled nature, preserved biodiversity, untouched landscapes, fresh air, and pristine waters. People want to take care of themselves, bodies, and minds alike. Mountains are the perfect place for wellness and fitness quests, which explains the growing success of spas, hot springs, and other forms of health tourism practiced at altitudes.

Let us first consider the quantitative aspect. The number of international arrivals worldwide has grown from 25 million in 1950 to 165 million in 1970, 950 million in 2010, and 1,475 million in 2019, the year before COVID-19; after a sharp drop, it was again close to 1,5 billion in 2023. FAO and UNWTO estimate that mountain destinations account for between 9 and 16 percent of all international arrivals, a too vague evaluation that has obviously to be refined.

But tourism is much more than an international phenomenon. It is estimated that domestic arrivals are five or six times higher than international arrivals. 

A second aspect of the significant changes underway for tourism in general, and for mountain tourism in particular, is globalization.

Tourism has contributed to globalization since every corner of our planet, even its highest peaks, are nowadays visited by one-fifth of the inhabitants of the world.

In 1950, the 15 leading receiving countries accounted for 87 percent of the total international arrivals. In 2022, the current 15 leading destinations (most of them newcomers) account for just 56 percent of the total. Some 20 countries receive more than 10 million international visitors.

Alpine skiing, the number one mountain tourism activity, is becoming global. 372 million skier days were registered during winter 2022-2023 in some 2,000 resorts located in 68 countries. One reason for the recent growth of the ski market is the boom registered in China because of the Beijing Olympics, even if the economic and sociological impact was reduced by the COVID-19 epidemic, which outbursts immediately after the Games. 

Diversification of mountain tourism products and markets

For general tourism and mountain tourism, we learned a lot from the Covid pandemic. In crises, it is important not to be too dependent on a single or on a small number of generating markets. A good balance is to be found between the domestic market and the long-distance overseas markets.

Diversification in generating markets and, consequently, in terms of tourism products is one of the keys to resilience in crisis situations. More than by the virus itself, mountain destinations have been affected from 2020 to 2022 by the administrative and sanitary barriers that governments had put in place to protect their citizens against the disease, but also by the limitations to inbound and outbound travel imposed by many countries to their residents or to the foreigners. 

Among those most severely hit were the destinations highly dependent on a unique and vulnerable tourism product. Non-sustainable forms of tourism such as cruises, long-haul air travel, business tourism, amusement parks, and high-altitude ski resorts, suffered more than the other market segments from the epidemic.

Conversely, mountain tourism practiced at mid-altitude demonstrated its strong resilience because of its higher sustainability. In the Alps, mid-altitude villages, which offer a broad range of four-season sports, cultural and leisure activities, resisted rather well to the shock when high-altitude resorts felt the inconvenient to be exclusively devoted to the practice of Alpine skiing at a time when lifts had to be closed for sanitary reasons.

Flexibility is equally essential. In troubled situations, destinations and enterprises must adapt quickly to a change in the international panorama and shift to another market if a habitual one closes suddenly.  Training programs for the staff are essential to respond to that challenge. Increased digitalization of many tasks and processes is also part of the solution. The development of e-tourism and of the new form of accommodations booked directly online by the consumers can also bring more flexibility in the mechanisms of the tourism economy.

Surprisingly, the result of the unprecedented crisis in world tourism history we experienced with COVID-19 is that we are now moving towards increased sustainability of the tourism industry.


The question of sustainability refers mainly to three aspects: over-tourism, excessive seasonality of tourism activity, and climate change.

First aspect: overtourism.

The cultural and sometimes ethnic diversity offered by a mountain environment is a major resource for tourism; it can be found, for example, in various provinces of China, such as Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi… But mountains are also a very fragile environment:

If visitors can use the newly built high-speed trains and motorways and flock to remote valleys and villages without rules, precautions or limits, this unique heritage will not survive for long.

Overtourism is the first enemy of mountain tourism. The limits imposed by the carrying capacity of the sites and communities visited must be absolutely respected. Nowadays, you need to wait or to queue to climb the Mount-Blanc or the Mount Everest, you must make a booking to access a fabulous mountain cultural site like the Machu-Picchu!

The second aspect is excessive seasonality.

A key issue for mountain tourism, and especially for the ski industry, is to be frequently limited to a few months of the year, which leads to an addition of negative external effects -economic, social, cultural, and environmental. Offering an extensive range of diversified tourism services and multiplying the culture and sport events all year round is a way for the mountain destinations to reduce the excessive seasonality of their activity, to increase their revenues, and to become more sustainable.

The third aspect is climate change.

The most serious challenge affecting mountain destinations and calling for more sustainability of the tourism activity is the global warming. Tourism is not innocent in the worsening of the process: if you include air transport, it contributes between four to five per cent to the emission of gases with a greenhouse effect. Tourism is both the recipient and the instrument of climate change.

High-mountain tourism is the first victim of that upheaval since, as demonstrated by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the increase in the average temperatures is much higher in altitude.As stated by UNESCO: “mountains are the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change and are being affected at a faster rate than other terrestrial habitats.”

The powerful ski industry is vulnerable more than any other sector to the incidence of global warming.

Snow and ice, the basic raw materials for winter tourism, are becoming scarcer. In high altitudes, the cold season is shrinking, glaciers and permafrost are melting, snow lines are retreating, snow cover is depleting, and freshwater resources are becoming scarcer. Since 1980, an upper-class ski resort like Aspen in Colorado has lost one winter month.

Artificial snow is increasingly used to mitigate the impact, but it is not a panacea: it needs cold temperatures to work efficiently, essential volumes of water are required, and the energy used by the process contributes further to the warming.

The drama is that the unbelievable prospect of a 3 to 4 degree increase is no longer a hypothesis. By the mid-century, it had become a tragic but credible scenario. The IPCC’s sixth Assessment Report, released in August 2021, shows unequivocally that global warming is unfolding more quickly than feared. The Paris agreement target of a rapid limitation to a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperatures appears now unreachable. 

But the ski industry is not the only victim. Other segments of mountain tourism activity are suffering as well, such as those based on remarkable biodiversity. Disappearing permafrost damages infrastructure, with dangerous rock falls threatening alpinists. The 200,000 glaciers, which are for some of them major tourism attractions, are melting and receding in various parts of the world, particularly in the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalayas. 

In short, constraints and changes resulting from global warming will force mountain tourism operators and destination management organizations to abandon some activities or implement costly mitigation and adaptation measures. Adapting to global warming and mitigating its impact represent the major challenges facing mountain tourism—and tourism as a whole—in the foreseeable future. 

World-class famous mountains

People usually ignore geography and need to refer to landmark sites or famous monuments as reference points. This is how tourists, using a GPS or another mobile phone application, know where they are, consider what they may visit, and decide where they want to go.

Chamonix is famous because of Mount Blanc, which overlooks the village, and Zermatt because it lies under the Matterhorn, Kathmandu, since it is a starting point to climb Mount Everest.

Mount Kilimanjaro and the wildlife of the nearby natural parks are fantastic tourism assets for Kenya and Tanzania. Machu-Picchu mountain ancient city is the most spectacular site dating from the Inca civilization in Peru. Mount Ararat is the symbol of the Armenian nation, in the same manner as Fujiyama for Japan. Famous mountains appear on the flags of Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Nepal, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Mount Sinai is highly religiously significant to Christians and Jews. China has five holy mountains. In many parts of the world, nearby villagers regard mountains and volcanos as divinities.

Mountain tourism in China

80 percent of the territory of China is made of mountains, and 40 percent of it lies over an altitude of 2,000 meters. Among the world’s major countries, China is, by nature, a unique destination for mountain tourism.

However, mountain destinations in China have been, until now quasi-exclusively frequented by domestic visitors. Most of the time, foreign tourists, coming either for cultural or business purposes, limit their stays to discovering a small number of major cities.

Enhancing the quality of mountain tourism products, adapting them to international standards, strengthening the practice of foreign languages, using digitalization and new information technologies, improving marketing strategies and promotion tools could and should give a new impulse to mountain tourism development in China

WTNJOIN | eTurboNews | eTN

(eTN): UNWTO Hon SG Frangialli: Mountain Tourism’s Worst Enemy is Tourism | re-post license post content


About the author

Francesco Frangialli

Prof. Francesco Frangialli served as Secretary-General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, from 1997 to 2009.
He is an honorary professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Share to...