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Mountaineering and Tourism in the French Dauphiné Region

Pierre-Olaf Schut


During the second half of the 19th century, the growth of mountaineering in Europe entailed a development of the high mountains through the implementation of refuges and other tourist amenities intended for the comfort of visiting climbers. Soon Switzerland won fame because of its capacity to build up a significant economic activity leaning on the tourist and sports attraction of its mountains. On the other side of the border, in France, the town of Chamonix quickly structured its resources in response to the ever-growing activity around the Mont Blanc and the Ice Sea. However, further south of the French Alps, the Dauphiné area lagged behind, still mainly functioning on the basis of a traditional, rural economy. The municipality of Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans, in the heart of the massif, made revenues from renting its pastures to shepherds from Provence. The point of this paper is to analyze the economic transformation of this municipality which, between 1875 and 1914, evolved from managing agricultural and pastoral activities to dealing with tourist activities related to mountaineering. As opposed to Switzerland – where the realization of the tourist importance of the territory immediately turned into substantial private investments – the municipality we are concerned with was overcautious and, for many years, had to be pressed by alpine and tourist Societies before fully embarking on its new vocation. For this demonstration we shall lean on the local, public archives of the town, but also on the publications of the French Alpine Club and the French Touring-Club, the Societies which specifically supported tourist development in this area. Through these archives, we shall first apprehend the initiatives taken to make the practice of mountaineering possible: the building of refuges, the improvement of access paths and the creation of a corporation of guides. Then we shall take a wider look at the development of the infrastructures which made the municipality more accessible – the telegraph, the extension of the road network – all of these resulting from the initiatives of tourist Societies in order to open this rural land to tourism. Besides, we shall analyze the progressive driving effect this dynamics had on local companies. Eventually, the economic mutation of the municipality ended up with the exclusion of all pastoral activities now perceived as a threat to the environmental preservation of the high valleys which have become the sole territory of tourists and mountaineers.


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hal-01605401 , version 1 (02-10-2017)


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Pierre-Olaf Schut. Mountaineering and Tourism in the French Dauphiné Region. 42nd Annual Convention of the North American Society for Sport History, Jun 2014, Glenwood Springs, United States. ⟨hal-01605401⟩
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