Tourism in the Dolomites
“The Dolomites are widely regarded as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world” states UNESCO*. Recently inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, on June 26, 2009, these mighty mountains hold a wide appeal for hikers, climbers, skiers, cyclists, historians, photographers, and cultural tourists alike.
How did the Dolomites become a tourist destination?
More than 200 years ago, Dolomites namesake French mineralogist Deodat de Dolomieu identified the composition of the mountains’ calcareous rock. The publication of his studies in 1791 drew scholars from all over Europe to investigate the intriguing new possibilities of explaining the earths’ history. But until the mid- to late-1800s “the Dolomite district was scarcely known even by name to any but scientific travelers” writes Englishwoman Amelia Edwards in her 1873 travelogue, Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites.
In the 1850s, English mountaineers began to arrive in the valleys of the Dolomites. Drawn by the imposing rock faces and peaks, they would journey multiple days on foot to access and these astonishing mountains. It was two English travelers, the painter Josiah Gilbert and the naturalist George Cheetham Churchill, who were the first to popularize travel to the Dolomites. The two men traveled the length and breadth of the region for seven years (1856 to 1863), popularizing it in their 1864 book, The Dolomite Mountains.
Beginning in 1870, as train connections and hotel accommodations expanded, upper class English families and nobility began to arrive. Trips to the so-called Eastern Alps became fashionable, and Thomas Cook Travel Agents in London quickly added the Dolomites to its catalogues. Traveling through the Dolomites however was still quite a challenge. Roads were few and transport was slow; travel was mostly by foot, horseback, or wagon, and lodgings were poor. Residents of the Dolomites quickly took up roles providing services to these visitors, and many started their own businesses to service guests. Increasingly the upper class could travel here and restore themselves with the pure alpine air, with a minimal amount of exertion. Whether as mountain guides or hotel personnel, the local inhabitants realized the potential this new tourism held for them.
In 1887, free climbing became forever associated with the Dolomites when 17-year-old Georg Winkler soloed the first ascent of the pinnacle Die Vajolettürme, drawing climbers to the area for years to come. Around 1900, several residents began to teach winter sports to their guests. In the first decade of that century, the road from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo was built, heralding a new era of tourism. Tourism and its development alternately boomed and waned throughout the first half of the 20th century, due to Italy’s involvement in the two World Wars. After 1945 however, it became the most important business sector in the Dolomites.
In 1947 Erich Kostner, son of the legendary alpine guide and alpinist Franz Kostner, commissioned the first ski chair lift in Italy to be built.** This transported people up Col Alto, to an elevation of 2,000 meters (6,562 feet), and helped Dolomites tourism continued expansion into winter. The lift itself represented a true engineering success, as at that time there were no pre-fabricated machine elements to build or operate the lift, and everything had to be designed from scratch. But not only was Kostner able to create a smoothly operating chairlift, skiers from all over came to visit, and as a result of its increasing popularity the surrounding facility was soon improved. In 1952, Kostner again put his mark on the development of tourism in the region, founding the funicular association of the Province of Bolzano to support the many chairlifts that had been built in the region. He also founded the tourist association Dolomiti Superski, today the largest skiing area in the world and recognized as offering some of the world’s best skiing. Additionally, as roadways were built and expanded, Kostner became a founding member of the Italian association for transport.
In 1956 the Winter Olympics came to the Dolomites’ Cortina d’Ampezzo, the first ever to be broadcast live on television. The Olympics brought with them awareness that tourism was the future, and the creation of new sporting facilities and hotels exploded. As a result, the 1950s brought with them media exposure in national publications including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post in additino to promotional films to lure tourists to the region, as well as the arrival of bus tours. In 1969, the Dolomites were again the center of winter sporting competition, when Val Gardena hosted the first ever World Cup Skiing event. Since that time, the Dolomites have remained on the World Cup tour most every year, on the slopes of Val Gardina, Cortina d’Ampezzo, and Alta Badia. In the years that have followed, the region has been developed to offer a vast array of outdoor activities that make the Dolomites the perfect destination for adventure travelers, both yesterday and today.
Why do people come to the Dolomites today?
The Dolomites have become a true outdoor playground for tourists. Summer, as well as spring and early autumn, provides outstanding opportunities for hiking, climbing via ferrata, rock climbing, mountaineering, road and mountain biking, base jumping, paragliding, and hang gliding. With winter comes snow, and exceptional down hill, off piste, and cross country skiing, as well as incredible snowshoeing.
- Accessibilty: The Dolomites are not only Italy’s most beautiful and dramatic mountain range, they are also it’s most accessible. Whether hiking, climbing, or skiing, these cragged and jagged peaks can be accessed through one of the most complex systems of hiking trails in all of Europe. Add to this numerous cable-cars, chairlifts, and gondolas, and its awe-inspiring beauty is well within the reach of most all levels of hikers and walkers.
- Hiking: The Dolomites offers innumerable hiking trails. From short, flat walks to challenging hikes with significant elevation changes, day hikes to multi-day excursions, these mountains are traversed by a network of trails that cross through entire Dolomite groups and allow for in-depth exploration of the area on foot.
- Via Ferrata: Via ferrata, or iron paths, offer access to high elevations and vistas usually reserved for rock climbers and mountaineers. Originally built by the Italian alpine military units during World War I, via ferrata offer routes through the mountains ranging from hikes to adrenaline filled ascents, all protected by a network of cables and rails. (For more information, see our via verrata article.)
- Climbing: The classic and modern climbing routes of the Dolomites have made history in the world of traditional climbing. Climbers of all levels can find their ideal terrain here, everything from single pitch to long multi-pitch routes, all of which feature a breathtaking combination of rock formations and the surrounding mountain range.
- Cycling: The Dolomites are a haven for cyclists – both road and mountain bikers alike. Spectacular mountain passes and lush valleys create dramatic ascents and descents that make for exhilarating bicycling and sightseeing. Whether you prefer road riding on asphalt, mountain biking on gravel or fire roads, or to challenge yourself on single track, daily excursions are limitless – from steep grades over passes to exploring small hamlets set in the valleys between.
- Skiing: The Dolomites are home to the largest ski area in the world: Dolomites Superski. With just one ski pass, visitors have access to 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) of prepared slopes with 450 lifts at 12 different ski areas! Many of the gondolas and trails provide access to rifugios nestled high in the mountains, providing a great rest stop for lunch, and for over night hut-to-hut traverses. More interested in an off-piste adventure or a cross country tour? The Dolomites have plenty of that too!
- Snowshoeing: As with hiking, the network of trails criss-crossing the Dolomites provide countless opportunities for snowshoe adventures – just on snow! It truly is a winter wonderland.
- Culture & History: The Dolomites are a cultural crossroads of Italian, Tyrolean, and Rhaeto-Roman influences. Cultural remnants of the first century Roman invasion remain and are still preserved, particularly in Ladin speaking villages. Centuries later, during World War I, Italy again took possession of South Tyrol defeating the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Artifacts of WWI can be visited by climbing via ferrata or visiting the extraordinary open air museum. However, it was not until 1938 that modern Italianization of the region took hold. As a result, today the villages of the Dolomites are an enchanting mix of culture, architecture, and language; and street signs are written in Italian, German, and Ladin.
- Geology & Geography: The Dolomites are well known for their composition of pale colored dolomite (a form of limestone) lying atop a darker volcanic bed. This complex intersection of rock formations has allowed scientists to reconstruct the evolution of the margin between land and sea. Carved over the centuries into soaring peaks and deep valleys by glaciers, the stark contrast of verdant landscape against jagged mountains lays fascinating geography atop the geologic interest.
- Photography: These dramatic mountains are famous for their unique colors. Once known as the Pale Mountains, they become firey at sunrise and sunset, and ethereal purple during the dawn and dusk alpenglow. The verticality provides a dramatic contrast to the verdant, pastoral valleys beneath, and they provide a pure haven for photography.
Where should I stay?
The Dolomites offers everything from 5-star luxury hotels to simple mountain huts. As tourism has developed, lodging options have expanded. Luxury chalets complete with spa service; cozy wood-paneled hotels with fluffy down comforters; biker, hiker, and skiier friendly accommodations; and bed and breakfasts so you know you’ll always start your day off right, with a hearty meal.
Perhaps the most unique of these options are the alpine rifugios. Rifugi – or mountain huts – are the classic accommodation for hikers, climbers, mountaineers, and ski mountaineers in the Alps, and the Dolomite rifugi are considered the best. Each with its own unique character and charm, set in spectacular locations high in the Dolomites, most rifugi are accessible only on foot. Bedding and linens are provided, hot showers are available, and meals are served in common dining areas – like a small mountain inn set high in the mountains with the most incredible panoramas in the Dolomites. An overnight rifugio stay is not to miss on a Dolomite holiday.
How easy is it to get to the Dolomites?
The two closest international airports serving the Dolomites are located approximately 100 miles away in Venice, Italy (162 km to the south), and Innsbruck, Austria (165 km to the north). From the airport, it is possible to take a train or bus to the Dolomites; a combination of the two is most often advisable to reach your specific destination. Some airports, particularly Venice, also offer shuttle buses that operate on fixed timetables several times a day. Rental car services are also an option, however be advised there are no rental car drop-offs in the Dolomites, therefore you need to keep your car the entire duration of your stay, as well as return it to the airport at the conclusion.
What are the challenges facing tourism in the Dolomites today?
Although well known and highly regarded by European travelers, the Dolomites have not yet completely captured the imagination of the North American tourist. Unlike the early days of tourism and development, today there are few international events held here that capture worldwide attention. Nor has there been strong promotion to English speaking markets, particularly to North America. Sadly, most Americans and Canadians are not aware of the opportunities available in this tremendous playground.
Additionally, while technically part of the Alps, the Dolomites are very different. They are not often referred to at the “Eastern Alps” or the “Italian Alps,” and therefore do not benefit from the popularity and promotion of this chain of mountains. Nor do they benefit from the popularity of tourism to Italy in general. With such a plethora of cultural and historical richness in this country, the Dolomites are often overlooked, in competition for tourism from the other sights within their own country! And, while they are the most accessible mountains in Italy, they still reside 100 miles from the nearest international airport, and require trains, buses, shuttles, or automobile rentals to reach upon arrival in country.
As a result, the Dolomites today often remain a secret to the English speaking traveler.
What is the future of Dolomites tourism?
In just over one hundred years, Italy’s Dolomite mountains have been transformed from the domain of scientists and mountain climbers, to an international tourist destination. Despite this growth, the character and charm or the valleys and villages, the multiple cultures, and the pristine beauty of these mountains has been preserved, so that future tourists may continue to enjoy them.
While the expansion of tourism as not slowed, as a newly inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Site, this outlook for this protection is improved, with recognition of the outstanding universal value of its cultural and natural heritage: “The nine components of The Dolomites World Heritage property protect a series of highly distinctive mountain landscapes that are of exceptional natural beauty.” The Dolomites’ 18 peaks which rise above 3,050 meters (10,000 feet) and cover 141,903 hectares (almost 550 square miles) shall be protected for and explored by generations to come.
* United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
** The Col Alto ski lift replaced a cable way that was built in 1938. Updated several times, in 1978 with a double chair and again in 1990 with a detachable quad, this piece of history was finally dismantled in spring 2006, replaced by a new eight-passenger cabin gondola later that year.