The appeal of mountains has long been obvious to people around the world. They’re impressive in their size and variety, dotted with fascinating trees, plants and wildlife, and if you climb one, you can see for a long way. So it’s not surprising that they have their own day — International Mountain Day.

A person taking a photo on an overlook by a mountain.

The United Nations General Assembly deemed Dec. 11 International Mountain Day in 2003 and “encouraged the international community to organize events at all levels on that day to highlight the importance of sustainable mountain development.” Every year, the U.N. chooses a different theme to focus on. In 2021, mountain lovers are contemplating sustainable mountain tourism.

Related: Join the sustainable vacation movement with Oculis Mountain Side

A scenic mountain vista.

Development of mountain tourism

We can trace mountain tourism at least back to the 1700s when European entrepreneurs built grand hotels and mountain railways and enticed young elites to high elevations with snow sports. By the late 1800s, Alpine tourism was booming. It declined in the first half of the 20th century due to two world wars and the Great Depression.

People standing on a ledge overlooking a forest and mountain landscape.

By the 1960s, advances in the world economy opened mountains to mass tourism. Instead of arriving by rail or horse-drawn carriage, 20th-century people zoomed up mountain roads in private cars. More cars meant more roads, mountain resorts, buildings, people and inefficient sprawl where there used to be beautiful natural views.

A line of people walking through snowy wilderness.

Mountain visitors and their activities became more demanding. In addition to classic pastimes like climbing, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing, vacationers began to want more resource-intensive outings like mountain biking, snowboarding, paragliding and helicopter skiing.

Threats to mountains

Because of their steep slopes, chilly climates and often harsh winters, mountains have few ways to develop economically. Which is a problem for the nearly 1 billion people worldwide who live in mountainous areas and need a source of livelihood. Mountains don’t readily lend themselves to agriculture or industry. Instead, tourism is the likeliest source of money and jobs.

A ski lift up a snowy mountain.

But all this love is hard on the mountains. Call it overtourism or overexploitation, it’s just too much of a good thing. Pristine land is lost to development, and car fumes pollute the clean air as gases get stuck in valleys. Ski lifts mar the view and increase erosion and the potential for avalanches.

A person with skis on a snowy mountain.

Then there’s global warming. As permafrost disappears from high-altitude mountains, locals and tourists face more dangerous rock falls. Many ski areas can no longer bank on enough snow cover to satisfy skiers. Resorts face the decision of whether or not to coat the slopes with fake snow, which raises chemical concerns and can alter water table levels.

Sustainable mountain travel tips

So how should we be responsible tourists who promote sustainability when visiting mountain regions? It’s all about how we get there, where we stay, and what we do while we’re there.

A snowy mountain town at dusk.

Consider visiting a mountain that’s accessible by public transportation. For example, you can take a two-hour shuttle bus from Calgary to Banff in the Canadian Rockies. In Europe, many scenic train routes lead to mountains. Or maybe you can carpool to cut down on the number of private cars on the road. Nobody likes to reach a remote place just to find that gridlock awaits them there, too. You don’t want to be the person to succumb to mountain road rage.

A person and a dog standing in grass with mountains in the background.

Next, think about where you’re staying. Try to put money back in the local economy, whether you’re choosing a homestay with a Peruvian family in the Andes, or a small inn in Sri Lanka. If you’re staying at a larger resort, check its website for a rundown of its eco-practices. Does it have a water bottle refilling station instead of pushing overpriced single-use bottles? Does the hotel restaurant donate unused food to local food banks? Are there solar panels to harvest all that mountain sunshine?

If you’re hiking in grizzly bear country, such as the mountainous area of Montana, it’s important to make noise so that you don’t surprise a bear. Otherwise, enjoy the quiet. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are almost silent and don’t produce pollution like snowmobiles or the helicopters that drop elite travelers in remote areas.

A snowy mountain landscape.

When hiking, respect the land. People worked hard to build those marked trails for a reason. Stay on them, and let the surrounding ecosystem remain intact. What looks like a bunch of weeds to the casual eye is a complicated world that can easily be crushed under your muddy boots.

Pack a reusable bag or two for any shopping you might need to do. Be selective about souvenirs, rather than buying plastic junk or cheap t-shirts. If you’re staying in a mountain town with a secondhand store, try to shop there.

People walking down a snowy mountain.

Bring a water filter so you can drink safely from mountain streams. And if you’re visiting mountains in a place where you suspect tap water might make you sick, use your water filter at your lodgings, too, to avoid single-use plastic bottles.

Via UNWTO, U.N., and Cabi

Images © Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat