Mon Tour du Mont Blanc

Mont-Blanc: the cradle of tourism

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The Mont Blanc massif can boast of being a tourist location for more than two centuries.

A true laboratory for alpine tourism, it served as a model for mountain towns and territories throughout the world.

Mountain holidays were created in this area, as the notebooks of learned people and travellers who explored the whole massif testify.

The travels of William Windham and Richard Pococke in 1741 and those of Pierre Martel in 1742 are the oldest on which precise details are known. Horace-Bénédict de Saussure made various journeys to the Alps from 1760. He gives a wonderful description of local customs, the years of commitment needed for reaching the Mont Blanc peak, and gives numerous scientific observations in his work of four volumes, Journey in the Alps.

Interest in the massif grew after Mont Blanc, the most coveted peak at that time, was conquered.  This occurred on 8 August 1786, with the repeated attempts of two citizens from Chamonix, Michel-Gabriel Paccard e Jacques Balmat.

The great adventure that is mountaineering and tourism had just begun when the villages began organising themselves for hosting an increasingly higher number of clients. The Hotel de l'Angleterre, the Hotel de l'Union in Chamonix, the Hotel Royal in Courmayeur and yet again the Auberge de Tête Noire in Trient became the favourites of tourists, above all foreign, who were looking for new sensations, or even the base camp of climbers who were keen to conquer.

The local populations, becoming aware of this economic blessing, did much to propose their services and accompany tourists to the peaks.

Following the continuous request, the municipality of Chamonix became the first to discipline the profession of guide. In 1821, the first Compagnie des Guides was created, with almost 200 members. In 1850, Courmayeur and Saint-Gervais took part in the competition by creating their own company.

Thermalism, which during that same period underwent a true boom, must not be forgotten.  When its thermal source was discovered in 1752 Pré-Saint-Didier, followed by Saint-Gervais in 1808, drew clients who drank the water to protect their at times precarious health.

This second phenomenon threw the locals into the construction web and during the whole 19th Century hotels, one more luxurious than the other, rose like mushrooms over the valley floor.  Construction reached its peak with the building of superb edifices such as the Bristol and Finhaut, the Majestic or the Savoy in Chamonix.

This euphoria allowed some valleys to open externally, with the construction and modernising of communication means. Finhaut was released from isolation in 1861 with the widening of the muletrack that connects it to Martigny.

Napoleon, during his visit to Chamonix in 1860, promised to make access to the valley easier. In the 20th Century the construction of the railway between Le Fayet and Martigny contributed greatly to this purpose.

The 20th Century

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Winter tourism began in 1900 and clients became enthusiastic about the new sports: skiing, skating, curling and bob. The first competitions date back to 1908, but the true apple of the eye as far as winter sports was concerned was the first Winter Olympics held in Chamonix in 1924: it was a magnificent event that stimulated the villages around the Mont Blanc massif to accept the challenge of skiing. The first urban layout projects, from the most simple to the most extravagant, were created during the first half of the 20th Century. The stations of Combloux, Megève, Saint-Gervais, and Courmayeur developed and became famous in a short time.

The construction of the first ski districts mainly involved the high altitude areas and in particular those mountain pastures that were most suitable for hosting ski-lifts (Chécrouit, Planpraz, Mont d'Arbois, Orsières pasture, etc...). Ski-lifts were positioned high up throughout the whole 20th Century, while the valley floor was colonised by the so-called "tourist beds" destined for an ever-increasing number of guests.

Investments dropped from the 1980s, caused essentially by the end of the magnificent constructions in the most famous sites, but also and above all by a new collective awareness of the territorial structure, to which irregular snowfalls can be added.

In 2000 Espace Mont-Blanc was created with a set of reasonably equipped sites having a continuously increasing capacity for reception. The environmental problems that the territorial managers - whether politicians, institute officers or association representatives - have to face deal essentially with the valley floor or the low altitude mountainsides.

From its own part the much loved Mont Blanc enjoys protection that is strong enough (site on the French side) to obstacle all those who have projects that are unsuitable for or do not respect the environment.