Last summer I had the privilege of vacationing in the French and Swiss Alps. This was a trip I had wanted to take for several years, and even with the high expectations, the experience lived up to my expectations. I love the beauty of nature, delicious food, and being a temporary local in a new place.
As a sociologist, I bring my sociological imagination with me wherever I travel, whether it’s on a plane, where I’m staying, or even just planning a vacation. I think I have a sociological imagination strengthens instead of hindering my experiences. One of my observations on this trip was how the natural world is monetized and commoditized, a process that I participated in and though I experienced it through a critical lens, I still enjoyed it.
On our first full day in Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France, my husband and I booked tickets for the Aiguille Du Midi, a cable car to an observation deck at about 12,600 feet. This is the easiest way to get a close-up view of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps at over 15,400 feet. The Aiguille Du Midi is the most popular attraction in the city, despite the high price – about $70 per person for a round trip and no more than two hours. We would have booked our tickets in advance, but there’s little point going up if it’s cloudy and obscuring the views, so we had to wait until we knew what the forecast looked like.
Arriving at the station for our 11.20 am departure the next day, we also found throngs of people also waiting – numbering in the hundreds – checking in on a large electronic sign telling you what time your cable car is. really on departure (our tickets would apparently pick us up in about an hour). When the time came, we were packed like sardines into the cable car, which held 66 people for the 20-minute ride. On busy days, up to 5,500 people visit this site.
As you can see from this video, the visuals were impressive. There were two observation decks, an exhibit on the effects of hypoxia at high altitude, and a plexiglass box hanging over the side that you could climb into and take pictures of (we missed the long line to take pictures). Our timed tickets meant we had to get off and give other visitors a chance to enjoy the view.
The next day we took another lift to the other side of the Chamonix valley, which also had spectacular views of Mont Blanc (once the clouds cleared). There was no need to wait to get on the cable car to Planpraza, which cost around 20 euros per person for a round trip. As you can see from the image below, the views were just as impressive (and below is a better view of the glacier).
I wondered why one attraction had crowds of people that ended up selling out for the day, while the other had no lines? The gondolas to Planpraz were smaller, and without sardines, it was also impossible to experience. Planpraz cost a fraction of the first one. From there we ascended to Brévent, which offers spectacular views of Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.
I guess the marketing and the promise of being as close to Mont Blanc as non-climbers can explain why the Aiguille du Midi was so much more popular than the Planpraz. The peak known to viewers takes on the shape of a rock star (Wow, it’s Mont Blanc!), often the result of a long pilgrimage to get close, and when you do, it can be hidden by clouds. The observation is somehow more interesting for this reason, perhaps helping us to feel part of the wonders of the natural world (or a great Instagram photo: Here I am with Mont Blanc!).
Compagnie Du Mont Blanc, whose shares are traded on the French stock market, controls access and concessions for the Aiguille du Midi and surrounding lifts. This may explain why one site has a heavy marketing burden compared to another; Also, the Brévent lookout isn’t nearly as high (8,284 feet and 12,600 feet), and there aren’t many tourist attractions and sights.
Another attraction we tried to see was the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France. (Unfortunately, we arrived after it closed.) While the glacier itself is melting and highlighting the effects of climate change, you can still have a small part of the experience, at least by going to the gift shop where you can buy shirts, cards, mugs and stuffed animals.
Site owned Ice Sea Companywhich is a partnership between Mont Blanc Company and two financial institutions.
When we arrived in Switzerland we found even more marketing to explore the natural world with even higher prices. We visited the Jungfrau region where the signs below are located and planned hikes near these attractions. To do this, we each bought three-day Jungfrau passes, which allowed 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 finish at another heavily marketed location, the Schynige Platte.
At first, stunning mountain views were also on offer, but mainly selling ‘adventure’; riding buggies or open-air gliders down the mountain and walking the first cliff path run by Tissot (watch maker) as shown below.
As the sign below suggests, you can also walk a web ‘spider’ in the gorge that once housed a glacier, but the big ticket – and adventure advertised on almost every local train and even construction site – is the Jungfraujoch. , is named the “Peak of Europe” because it has the highest train station in Europe (although at 11,332 feet above sea level, it is more than 1,000 feet lower than the Aiguille du Midi).
The Jungfraujoch 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 publicly traded on the Swiss stock market. (We didn’t get there due to time constraints.)
Monetizing these spectacular sites limits who has access to them and blurs the lines between public and private spaces. Although companies that own and operate transportation and facilities do not own land, they largely control these spaces. Granted, there was nothing stopping us from hiking from the top of Mont Blanc (other than lack of mountaineering skills, equipment, or a few days to do it), so all but the elite climbers of Mont Blanc and Jungfraujoch need a ride.
Privatization means an increase in lifts and transportation high into the mountains, as well as mountain lodges with trailside restaurants, often serving delicious local food. This is one of my favorite places to hike in Europe. The US National Park System contracts with concessionaires to provide basic ticket prices, and this is rarely available on the trails.
The US national park system, along with state parks, offers more mainstream experiences, but at much more affordable prices. Entrance fees range from free to $35 per vehicle, typically allowing three to seven days of entry (war veterans get free lifetime access). The fees cover the upkeep of the park, rather than increasing the company’s profits. While overnight stays in the parks can be expensive, camping is not.
One of my favorite places on earth, Yosemite National Park, charges anywhere from $5 to $40 a night for campsites, although they can sell out quickly in the summer. Whole families can bring food on their trip and have a relatively cheap holiday in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But if you want to see the view from the top of Half Dome, there is no gondola or elevator, you have to hike up there.
Controlling the natural world is about more than vacation spots and beautiful views, but we are often at odds with how we use public spaces. What contradictions have you noticed between private and public spaces?
Photo courtesy of the author
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