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In Chamonix, the rise of scientific and eco-responsible tourism around Mont-Blanc

Union is Strength is a European journalism competition organized by Slate.fr in partnership with the European Commission. Forty journalists, French and European, have been selected to work as a team to write articles on projects financed by the European Union in Europe. A perspective on what the EU can do in its regions.

In Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (France).

Chamonix, 9 a.m. The first light of day makes the powder sparkle on the mountains. Going down the winding path from the Mont-Blanc observatory, you can clearly see the highest peak in Europe. At the end of the path, which the snow had deserted with the arrival of spring, an energetic handshake. “I never kiss… American habit”jokes Hillary Gerardi.

Hillary arrived in France eleven years ago. First settled in Grenoble, the researcher and high-level athlete was drawn to the wide open spaces of Chamonix. She moved there in 2017, to join the team of the Center for Research on Altitude Ecosystems (CREA Mont-Blanc).

The Mont-Blanc observatory chalet was built by mountaineer Joseph Vallot in the 19th century.e century. | Emma Challat

Founded twenty-six years ago, the NGO aims to study the consequences of climate change in the Alps, but also to raise awareness among the local population and tourists.

The association takes up residence in the chalet of the Mont-Blanc observatory, a building listed as a historical heritage site and built by the mountaineer Joseph Vallot. In the 1880s, the explorer thought of this orange wood refuge as a base camp for scientists from all over the world.

Climate change twice as fast as elsewhere

The only research center in the Chamonix valley, the place is now popular with researchers to observe climate change. “It’s super interesting to watch it here, because climate change is twice as fast in Mont-Blanc as elsewhere”underlines the researcher.

With its 4,810 meters at the top, Mont Blanc is the highest altitude gradient in Europe. The temperature difference between the valley and the peak is so great that studying all the ecosystems of the mountain amounts to analyzing a diversity of environments ranging from the Mediterranean to the North Pole. “We are lucky to have such a rich field of study. We must lead by example in adapting to climate change, but also in our approach to the Chamonix valley”relates Hillary.

To change the public’s view of the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc area, the CREA launched the cross-border project TourScience in 2014, financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and by the Latin Alps cross-border cooperation program (Alcotra) . Its primary objective was to create a scientific tourism offer for the general public.

The “desire for something other than sports performance”

“The link between the CREA and tourism is not necessarily obvious”concedes Célia Bonnet-Ligeon, the TourScience project manager. “Our bias was to tell us that the tourists of Chamonix perhaps wanted something other than sporting performance.”

During the first years of TourScience, scientific discovery stays were offered to students from abroad. After the Covid-19 pandemic which prevented any travel, the project refocused on a more informed public of academics.

Since global warming is now known to everyone, TourScience aims more to raise awareness about biodiversity. “It’s a less mastered theme, so we try to show how humans are one species among others in the ecosystem”explains Celia.

The CREA centralizes a lot of data on the biodiversity of the Mont-Blanc massif and aims to reconnect humans to nature. | Emma Challat

The CREA has thus developed scientific protocols based on observation. The idea? Reconnect everyone to nature. “When students are asked to sit on the floor and write down all the insects that pass by for five minutes, they are at first confused”smiles the project manager. “This allows them to measure their disconnection with this planet which they observe above all through screens”she continues.

This year, the TourScience project has been extended in order to explore new tourist avenues for Chamonix. “Our real question today is: how to sustain all of this?”says Celia.

Vital issue for the local economy

In the commune of Haute-Savoie, where tourism represents one in three jobs, the transformation of the sector is a vital issue for the local economy. “We don’t necessarily want to change the time tourists spend here, but rather their approach to the stay”says Hillary Gerardi.

Walking one of the roads leading to the city center, it is difficult to miss the square of the Saint-Michel church. The white stone building is surrounded by daffodils and tulips. Shades of sunny hues. This spring, they bloomed earlier.

Olivier Greber waits patiently in front of the mountain guide office. He has been the president of the company since 2019. With its 240 guides, created in 1821, the collective is the largest and oldest in the world.

With its 240 guides, created in 1821, the collective of Chamonix high mountain guides is the largest and oldest in the world. | Emma Challat

Over the years, Olivier Greber has seen the space around Chamonix change. “We have all seen an evolution of glaciers with seasonality. The Montenvers stairs, at the end of the Mer de Glace, once had 20 steps… Now there are 1,500.”he blurted out apologetically.

Mountain lovers

On the occasion of the bicentenary of the Compagnie des guides in 2021, the institution began to reflect on the adaptation of the profession in the face of global warming. This impulse first came from the public. “The issue of the environment comes up very often with our customers. We are obliged to have a minimum of resources on the subject.says the adventurer.

A guide since 1980, passionate about his profession, Olivier Greber has been president of the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix since 2019. | Emma Challat

Chamonix is ​​a small world. All tourism stakeholders know each other and work together. Some even have several hats, like some guides who take part in the research of the CREA Mont-Blanc. “It’s quite logicaljustifies Olivier. The first motivations for the ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 were scientific, […] there has always been this strong link between science and mountaineering.”

Forty years ago, the territory of the Alps sparked a vocation for Olivier Greber. His eyes light up when he thinks back to his beginnings. “I have been practicing since the 1980s. […] I love my job. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

Like him, each resident of “Cham’” maintains an intimate link with the Mont-Blanc massif. In the years to come, they all intend to commit to preserving each end of this territory of fragile beauty.

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This article was produced as part of the Union is Strength competition which has received financial support from the European Union. The article reflects the views of its author and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for its content or use.

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