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The Development of Scientific Tourism in Mountain Regions: Challenges and Issues for Territories in Transition

Mikaël Chambru, Cécilia Claeys et Nathalie Lewis
Cet article est une traduction de :
La mise en tourisme de la culture scientifique en montagne : défis et enjeux pour des territoires en transition [fr]

Notes de l’auteur

This contribution falls within the framework of a study funded by the ANR under the LABEX ITEM ANR-10-LABX-50-01 program

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1The popularization of science has long been present in mountain regions and this is reflected in multiple mechanisms, one of the stated goals of which is to build awareness and develop the scientific culture of targeted audiences. Over the past few years, this goal has enjoyed a broad consensus which transcends mountain territories and now appears to be unquestionable, despite associating intrinsically antagonistic economic, political, and cultural objectives (Lévy-Leblond 2018). It thus emerges that, rather than transform the relationship with scientific knowledge, scientific culture seeks to make socially acceptable those relationships built over the long history of science (Létte, 2007). In this perspective, scientific culture may be defined as a set of public policies, and professional and activist structures, approaches with similar but increasingly abundant objectives: disseminating knowledge, sharing science, making visible the cultural dimension of scientific activity and its productions, changing the methods of transmitting and learning science, participating in territorial and economic development, etc. (Bordeaux and Chambru, 2022). Developing cultural tourism with a scientific dimension in mountain regions is thus similar to approaches that seek to popularize science, but is distinct in that it is deployed within territories whose vulnerabilities and resources in relation to the effects of climate change are themselves specific compared with other non-mountain territories. This development thus contributes to the renewal and diversification of established forms of the popularization of science and the mediation of knowledge (Walter et al., 2019). By developing spaces for “science-society encounters” relating to mountain regions, it also questions the communication paradigms that shape the roles and the relationships with target audiences when scientific mediation actions are undertaken (Chavrot and Masseran, 2010). Possessing a heritage, industrial, technical, or environmental nature, this scientific tourism is based on a region’s resources, notably its cultural and natural resources, and on the knowledge produced by the natural sciences and by the human and social sciences in relation to the challenges of mountain regions.

2In practice, the development of cultural tourism with a scientific dimension in mountain regions reveals distinct forms of tourism practices and products. These mobilize, in different ways and to varying degrees, the scientific dimension today commonly referred to as scientific tourism (Mao and Bourlon, 2011). Scientific tourism has met with renewed interest because it interweaves current transition dynamics and the socio-environmental issues which these reveal: forms of territorial governance, access to scientific culture, and the eco-compatibility of projects (Chambru and Claeys, 2022). More often than not, it is presented as the expression of an alternative tourism system and an “after-tourism,” allowing the reinvention of a form of tourism that is territorialized and is forced to face the social issues of the 21st century around mountain regions (Bourlon et al., 2017). Cultural tourism projects with a scientific dimension, led by local actors, and claiming more or less an ecological transition dynamic, have (re)emerged in all mountain regions and have taken various forms of scientific tourism and different and specific tourist activities. This is the case, for instance, with astrotourism in protected natural areas in low mountain ranges, which has won multiple awards (Charlier, 2018), or of glacier tourism as “last-chance tourism” given the challenges of climate change in high mountain ranges (Salim and Ravanel, 2020). It is also the case with geotourism which seeks to reconcile the response to tourism diversification issues, the challenges of disseminating scientific knowledge, and territorial issues (Duval and Gauchon, 2010). Scientific tourism therefore reveals that multiple mediations have been implemented, in the form of new tourist experiences associating recreational practice and access to scientific knowledge, in order to raise public awareness of contemporary social issues (Vialette et al., 2021). Rather than promote debate about scientific results and their social and political effects, these scientific mediations primarily help the targeted audience to take partial ownership of science by allowing them to adopt a scientific perspective with regard to those issues that interest them. In this sense, scientific tourism in mountain regions reveals and documents the ambiguity of scientific cultural action (Las Vergnas, 2016).

3The articles in this special edition discuss this implementation of scientific tourism in mountain regions in order to document public interest concerns including scientific citizenship, ecological transition, and the diversification of tourist activities. Two main cross-cutting themes around mountain experiences are analyzed. The first concerns the diversification of mountain tourism through scientific culture, while the second concerns scientific tourism as a tool to promote ecological transition in mountain regions. These articles therefore analyze scientific tourism as one of the possible paths to support territorial transitions in the face of socio-environmental changes.


4In mountain areas, there has been an increase in criticism levelled against the “White Gold” model. Described as heavy industry, and as a mono-activity that is not socially, economically, or climatically sustainable, the tourist model of ski resorts would be outdated (Bourdeau, 2018). Thus, tourism diversification is now considered one of the pillars of “après-ski” and, potentially, of the ecological transition (Georges et al., 2021). Several articles in this thematic issue analyze how introducing scientific culture into tourism more or less contributes to the tourist diversification of mountain regions.

5This diversification may be aimed at enhancing areas hitherto neglected by the modernist tourist model, as Bussard and Reynard show with regard to Swiss geoparks. Based on the analysis of 33 scientific geo-tourism offers, the authors show the ambivalence surrounding “heritage awareness” which tends both to conceal and reveal the scientific interest of the sites behind their aesthetic characteristics.

6This diversification can also take the form of a heritagization of the cultural heritage in mountain regions, for instance through the valorization of cross-border archives, as analyzed by Hermand in the Dolomites and in the Haut-Atlas mountain ranges. In this case, scientific mediation uses analytical perspectives drawn from the human sciences through a scenography that focuses on people, their know-how, and their practices and is shaped by the fact that they live near mountains.

7Lastly, this diversification can combine—in the same approach which seeks the making of cultural heritage—the enhancement of a space outside ski resorts and environmental awareness, as is the case at Séolane (Study, Observation, and Housing Center around Nature and the Environment) in Barcelonnette, which Schoeny analyzes. The author shows how the Séolane center functions as a “multiscalar territorial laboratory” connecting indoor (seminars, laboratories, exhibitions) and outdoor (data collections, field schools, educational visits, etc.) scientific mediations.

8The examples highlighted in this issue make it possible to reflect on scientific culture as a potential “perfect resource”, in that it is singular, located in a specific territory, and translated into action and mobilized by the actors of this territory, such as the scientific tourism initiatives in Chile’s Aysen Region, located in Patagonia and analyzed by Bourlon, Vialette, and Mao. The authors show that scientific tourism initiatives provide support for scientific research as an open-air laboratory, for citizen experimentation as a space for mediation, for interpretation as an ecotourism field, and—pedagogically—for the environment as an educational space.

9The authors of these various articles highlight the success of these diversification, as well as the limitations that prevent them from fitting within genuinely ecological transitions. Indeed, tourist flows tend to remain concentrated. Scientific culture, as an alternative to top-rated tourist destinations, is characterized by a relative attractiveness for those who have been convinced. Otherwise, it is simply one among the many options in classic tourist stays. The question, then, is: are there structural limits, as suggested by the retrospective analysis proposed by Dumas-Primbault, Mihailescu, and Baudry, who remind us how the ambiguous relationship between scientific culture and recreational practices is embedded in the very genesis of mountain tourism? The authors show that scientific tourism took root as early as the end of the 18th century with the advent of mountaineering and in situ experimentation, making scientists the first alpine tourists. The dissemination of new insights resulting from these experiences simultaneously contributed to the media coverage of science and of these territories.

10Moreover, the messages that these contemporary scientific cultures may carry, such as raising awareness of climate change, may be toned down or even concealed for reasons of attracting tourists, as Kalpana, Salim, Girault, and Ravanel show in their comparison of three glaciological interpretation centers in Vanoise and Chamonix in France and in Valais in Switzerland. They also show that these initiatives, which seek to use science to promote glaciers threatened with extinction, are ultimately presented as “disengaged” in the sense that the climate issue is never addressed from a political angle.

11In short, even when branded as scientific culture, tourism diversification in mountain regions is not necessarily a transition, even less an ecological transition.


12Far from exhausting this theme, this special issue paves the way for further discussion by providing elements for reflection on the challenges and issues facing the implementation of scientific tourism in mountain regions in transition. It also recalls, as if necessary, the importance of analyzing mountain territories from both a critical and multidisciplinary perspective. This appears all the more necessary because of the polysemic dimension of the concept of scientific mediation. Indeed, this is marked by the attempts by actors of scientific culture to take ownership of the concept based on both their professional practices and their fields of research. Moreover, when the researchers themselves participate in this scientific tourism, the attempt to take ownership can clearly be seen in the space between these two social worlds. Scientific mediation researchers also mobilize this ambivalent concept, as both a field of research and a research object in its own right, to describe heterogeneous social phenomena. It is also associated with distinct epistemological conceptions and with more or less explicit normative positions aimed at reducing the complexity of communication phenomena. Analyzing these would help to renew the understanding of “science-society” relationships and to further develop—based on scientific tourism in mountain regions—the research that has long been conducted around the popularization of science (Pailliart, 2005).

13A second research perspective emerges in the background of the contributions to this special issue: the social and environmental paradoxes of the development of scientific tourism in mountain regions in the name of some form of environmental ethics. Originally similar to the paradoxes of allowing the public to visit protected natural areas (Claeys et al., 2011), the first paradox concerns the possible ecological impacts of an increase in the use of ecologically sensitive spaces, while the second concerns the socially and culturally selective nature of access to these spaces, which can induce or aggravate situations of socio-ecological inequalities. This issue is particularly important in mountain areas because of their ecological particularities and the fact that they are difficult to access. Similarly, scientific tourism tends to leave largely unanswered the broader question of the environmental transition of territories, and thus the sustainability of the living environments that compose them. It also overlooks the challenges of addressing unresolved social inequalities and suggests that, while it may be less discriminatory from an economic perspective than the single-activity model focused on skiing, it remains discriminatory at a symbolic and cultural level (Bourdieu, 1979).

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Mikaël Chambru, Cécilia Claeys et Nathalie Lewis, « The Development of Scientific Tourism in Mountain Regions: Challenges and Issues for Territories in Transition »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 110-1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2022, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mikaël Chambru

Lecturer, Université Grenoble Alpes, Labex laboratory Territorial Innovations and Transitions in Mountain areas (ITTEM), Research group on the challenges of communication (GRESEC).

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Cécilia Claeys

Lecturer accredited to supervise research, Aix-Marseille Universités, Population – Environment – Development Laboratory (LPED).

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Nathalie Lewis

Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Department of Societies, Territories and Development.

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