November 14, 2022

Monetizing the Natural World

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I had the privilege of taking a vacation to the French and Swiss Alps this past summer. It was a trip I had wanted to take for several years, and even with all the anticipation, the experience lived up to my expectations. The natural beauty, delicious food, and the chance to be a temporary local in a new location are all things I relish.

Being a sociologist, I bring my sociological imagination with me wherever I go, whether it is on an airplane, where I'm staying, or even just planning a vacation. I find having a sociological imagination enhances rather than interferes with my experiences. One of my observations on this trip was how the natural world is monetized and commodified, a process I participated in and though I experienced it through critical lenses, I still enjoyed.

On our first full day in Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France, my husband and I booked tickets to go to Aiguille Du Midi, a cable car ride to a lookout facility that is about 12,600 feet up. This is the easiest way to see Mont Blanc up close, the highest mountain in the Alps at over 15,400 feet. Aiguille Du Midi is by far the most popular attraction in town, despite its hefty price of about $70 per person for a round trip ride and a maximum two-hour visit. We would have booked our tickets in advance, but there is little point in going up if it is cloudy and the views are obscured, so we had to wait until we knew what the forecast looked like.

When we arrived at the station the next day for our 11:20 departure, we found crowds of people also waiting—numbering in the hundreds—checking in on a big electronic sign that indicated what time your cable car was really leaving (our tickets would apparently get us up about an hour later). When it was time, we were packed like sardines into the cable car, which held 66 people for a 20-minute ride. On busy days, up to 5,500 people visit this site.

image of snowy mountainsAs you can see from this image, the views were spectacular. There were two lookout decks, an exhibit on the effects of hypoxia at high altitudes, and a plexiglass box hanging over the side that you can step in and have your picture taken (we skipped the long line for a photo-op). Our timed tickets meant we had to descend and give the next visitors a chance to admire the view.

The next day, we took another cable car up to the other side of the Chamonix valley, which also afforded spectacular views of Mont Blanc (when the clouds cleared). There was no waiting to get on a cable car to Planpraz, which cost about 20 euros per person for a round trip ticket. As you can see from the image below, the views were equally as spectacular (and there is a better view of the glacier below).

image of mountain with glacierI wondered why there were crowds of people for one attraction, which was eventually sold out for the day, but no lines for the second? The gondolas to Planpraz were smaller, with no sardine can experience either. Planpraz was a fraction of the cost of the first. From there, we hiked up to Brévent, with dramatic views of Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi.

My guess is that marketing and the promise of being as close to Mont Blanc as non-mountaineers can ever hope to be explain why Aiguille du Midi was so much more popular than Planpraz. A known peak takes on the form of a rock star for viewers (wow, there’s Mont Blanc!), often the result of a long pilgrimage to get close, and when you do it may be hidden by clouds. A sighting is somehow more exciting for this reason, possibly helping us feel part of the wonders of the natural world (or a great Instagram photo-op: There I am with Mont Blanc!).

The Compagnie Du Mont Blanc, whose shares are traded on the French stock market, controls the access and concessions on Aiguille du Midi and surrounding lifts. This might explain why there is a big marketing push for one site versus the other; granted, the Brévent viewpoint isn’t nearly as high up (8,284 feet vs. 12,600 feet), nor are there extensive tourist facilities and attractions.

Another attraction that we attempted to see, was Mer de Glace, the biggest glacier in France. (Unfortunately, we arrived after it closed.) Although the glacier itself is melting and highlights the effects of climate change, you can still own a small piece of the experience, at least if you go to the gift shop where you can buy t-shirts, postcards, mugs, and stuffed animals. Mer du Glace gift shop
The site is owned by Compagnie de la Mer de Glace, which is a partnership between Compagnie Du Mont Blanc and two financial institutions.

When we got to Switzerland, we found even more marketing to experience the natural world, with even higher price tags. We visited the Jungfrau region, where the signs below are located, and planned on hiking in areas near these attractions. To do so, we each bought three-day Jungfrau passes, which gave us access to most trains, buses, gondolas, and mountain lifts, for about $195 per person. First stop, Grindelwald-First (pronounced FEERSHT), to begin an epic eleven-mile hike that would end at another heavily marketed location, Schynige Platte.

Sign promoting mountain adventures

First also offered stunning mountain vistas, but the main sell are the “adventures”; riding carts or open-air gliders down the mountain, and walking along the First Cliff Walk by Tissot (the watch maker), as pictured below.

Image of First Walk, GrindelwaldAs the sign below offers, you can also walk on a netted “spiderweb” in a gorge that once held a glacier, but the big ticket item—and the adventure advertised on just about every local train and even a construction site—is the Jungfraujoch, billed as “The Top of Europe” because it boasts the highest train station in Europe (although at 11,332 feet above sea level, it is more than 1,000 feet lower than Aiguille du Midi).

sign promoting "spiderweb" mountain adventureJungfraujoch is a big-ticket adventure costing more than $200 per person (which can be cheaper if you buy a multi-day pass). Owned by Jungfraubahn Holding AG, it is also a publicly traded company on the Swiss stock market. (We didn’t make it there due to time constraints.)

Sign advertising Junfraujoch

Monetizing these spectacular sites limits who has access to them, and it also blurs the line between public and private spaces. While the companies that own and operate the transportation and facilities don’t own the land, they do largely control these spaces. True, nothing was stopping us from hiking up from to the top of Mont Blanc (except for lack of mountaineering skills, equipment, or several days to do it), so for all but elite climbers Mont Blanc and Jungfraujoch require a ride.

Privatization means a proliferation of lifts and transportation high into the mountains, as well as mountain huts with restaurants right along the trails that often serve delicious locally sourced food. This is one of my favorite parts of hiking in Europe. The U.S. National Park system contracts with concessionaires, which provide more basic fare, and it is seldom available up on the trails.

The U.S. national park system, along with state parks, offer more basic experiences but at much more affordable prices. Entrance fees vary from free to $35 a vehicle, typically allowing access for three to seven days (military veterans have lifetime free access). The fees cover park maintenance rather than adding to corporate profits. While lodging inside parks can be expensive, camping is not.

One of my favorite places on earth, Yosemite National Park, charges $5 to $40 a night for campsites, although they can sell out quickly in the summer. Whole families can bring food for their trip and have a relatively cheap vacation at one of the most beautiful places in the world. But if you want to see the view from atop Half Dome, there’s no gondola or lift, you must hike there.

Control over the natural world is about more than just vacation spots and beautiful vistas, but this is often when we come in encounter the contradictions about how we use public spaces. What contradictions have you noticed between private and public spaces?

Photos courtesy of the author



It's possible for entire families to go to one of the world's most stunning destinations on a budget by packing their own meals. However, there is no gondola or lift to the top of Half Dome, so those who wish to experience the vista must walk up.

This is an excellent article. This is, in my opinion, one of the best posts ever written. Your work is excellent and inspiring. Thank you very much.

This is such an interesting topic and I appreciate your perspective on it. Looking forward to reading more from you.
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