August 23, 2023

Monetizing the Natural World, 2023 Edition

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

Last year, I wrote about popular attractions in the French and Swiss Alps, focusing on how the privatization of nature makes ultra-scenic spots all but off limits for those without the means to pay to enjoy them.

I was back again this year, this time in Germany and Austria for more Alpine hiking and sight-seeing. And while not as slickly marketed as in Chamonix, France, or the Jungfrau region of Switzerland, I observed other ways in which the natural world was monetized.

Just as when we were in France and bought tickets to Aiguille Du Midi for a look around the Mont Blanc area from the vantage point of 12,600 feet, this year we booked a ride to the top of Zugspitze, marketed as Germany’s highest peak. Like the destination peaks I wrote about last year, it is probably the main attraction in the region, although with a lot less advertising than I noticed in Switzerland. Tickets were 68 euros per person (approximately $76), so just reaching the area cost more than $150 for two of us.

And the views were stunning, although marred by smoke from the Canadian wildfires carried by the jet stream:

The natural beauty was only part of the scenery at the top, as the walls of the platform featured large advertisements like the ones below.

Picture3The first ad is for milk, featuring a similar scenic mountain vista. The copy translates to mean “a unique milk has a unique home,” connecting the wholesomeness of the mountains to the product.Picture4The second ad is for ski boots featuring American skier Bode Miller. While skiing down the Zugspitze is possible, it is only aspirational for most. The ad placement might encourage us to imagine ourselves skiing nonetheless.

At about 9,718 feet, Zugspitze not quite as high as the Aiguille Du Midi, but the viewing area is much larger and accommodates many more visitors. The mountain is also the natural border with Austria, and can be reached from that side as well. The photo below with the flags shows the Austrian side.

Picture5Before the European Union simplified border crossings between member nations, there were apparently border agents at this spot. A passport stamp into another country added to the tourist attraction.

While atop the Aguile Du Midi, near Mont Blanc in France, our tickets were timed and we had to leave within two hours, but atop Zugspitze people were encouraged to stay and shop at souvenir stands like the one below.

Picture6Along with hundreds of other visitors, we stayed for lunch. The sign below promises the “highest bratwurst in Germany” (beer is not included for the 7 euros, though).

sign advertising bratwurst

A quick gondola ride down deposits visitors right at the Eibsee, a small glacial lake featuring a paved walking path and its own set of shops and restaurants.

While visiting the Zillertal range in the Austrian Alps later in our trip, we took a ride up a gondola to hike on trails at the top in hopes of seeing similarly dramatic views.Picture9While clouds limited much of the view that day, there were quite a few people visiting a large playground. None of this was cheap (although it was cheaper than Zugspitze); a ticket on the Penkenbahn gondola cost 28 euros a person (just over $31). Children cost 14 euros, meaning a family of four would spend about $100 to ride the gondola and visit the playground.

Picture10Scooter rides are extra, as the sign below details:

Picture11While there were fewer ads here than at the larger attractions we have visited, a vacant building featured a large ad for Vans shoes in a mostly empty area:

Picture12Visiting these beautiful places has been a priority for me, and one of my few splurges. As I noted in my 2022 post, thinking critically about places we visit—as well as the places we live—is part of having an active sociological imagination.

These spaces can be maintained through costly admission fees, but those fees also limit who has access to such stunning vistas. Much of my appreciation of the U.S. national Park system is its relative accessibility. However, it has historically suffered from budget and staffing shortfalls, and relies on congressional allocations and the support of charitable organizations.

As a traveler, I am mindful of the privileges that allow me to visit these spaces. I also think critically about my role in contributing to overtourism, which can harm natural resources, take housing units off the local market and drive up rental prices.

What are some other sociological questions we might ask about monetizing the natural world?


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