Demographic Change in the Alps / Ethnic Minorities and Refugees

The Impact of Current Demographic Transformation
on Ethno-Linguistic Minorities in the Italian Alps

FWF-Project Nr. P20954. January 2009 - December 2011


The objective of this research is to highlight the impact of current demographic changes on ethno-cultural processes in the Italian part of the Alps. Given its distinct population development as well as its distinct autochthonous ethnic structure, this Alpine region is appropriate to show completely new trends in ethno-demography and settlement development in European high mountains. Referring to the field of ethno-demographic transformation, our research has to take dually into account concepts of ethnic minorities as well as concepts of current demographic changes. In the Alpine region ethnic minorities are described as special groups within a state which differ from the majority population in terms of objective (cultural) and subjective (sense of group-awareness) factors. This definition includes a common determination to retain its special status, as well as a certain status as an autochthonous ("historic") group which is legally recognized, provided such a group has existed for at least three generations (holding citizenship) at a given place. In the Alps the various ethnic groups may be distinguished from each through linguistic characteristics. Thus, in order to be more precise the term "ethno-linguistic group" should be preferred over the less specific term "ethnic group."

During the past several years, net migration gains could be observed not only in economically active or tourism-intensive regions, but also in distinctly remote territories - formerly traditional depopulation areas. First analyses show that from the mid nineteen-nineties onwards a new demographic trend has developed in Italian peripheral areas: Since that time the re-settling of such regions can be seen as an entirely new process (Čede and Steinicke 2007; Steinicke 2008). A currently conducted evaluation of the demographic processes in all communities in the Italian Alps confirms this new development (Beismann 2009): in the period between 2000 und 2007, an annual net migration surplus of 6.1‰ has been registered (Eastern Alps: 5.8‰, Western Alps: 6.7‰). The distinction based on the communal level (Fig. 1) shows that particularly in the remote areas of the Alps a demographic turn has begun.


Fig.1: Migration Balance between 01/01/2000 and 01/01/2008 in the Communities of the Italian Alps

Amenity Migration

The phenomenon of "amenity migration" constitutes a relatively new area of research. Definitions vary, but what they share is the idea that some people choose to move to places with attractive landscapes, appealing cultures, interesting histories, low crime rate, warmer climate, cultural activities, medical care, educational opportunities, quality of life, recreational activities, etc. for reasons mostly unrelated to job or business opportunities. These people include footloose youth, business persons who can carry their businesses or start them up where they like, employees whose jobs are not tied to a specific place, and people who can live from their investments, savings, or pensions. An "amenity" might be any area feature for which the migrant would be willing to pay, either through a lower wage, a higher rent, long waiting lines, or some other cost.
According to Moss (2003) amenity migration is defined as "people moving into the mountains to reside year-round or intermittently, principally because of their actual and perceived greater environmental quality and cultural differentiation." Following him, amenity migrants typically come from highly urbanized centers, are motivated by a desire to escape from negative metropolitan conditions, and they became acquainted with their new place of residence by past leisure based experiences. Amenity migrants bring both positive and negative effects to their new destination.

Positive EffectsNegative Effects
  • According to Williams and Gill (2004) positive effects include the infusion of new economic, institutional, and physical infrastructure capacity into the host region
  • Economic diversification and prosperity
  • Increasing property values
  • Lower rates of out-migration
  • Newly created job opportunities
  • The construction of homes for new residents may push the boundary between residential and undeveloped land further out
  • Many original residents are driven out by high cost of living
  • Demand for municipal services rises
  • Increased demand for municipal services, so higher taxes
  • Increased demands on outdoor amenities
  • Loss of forest cover/open space
  • Loss of habitat for plants and animals
  • Uncertainty about how long the amenity migration phenomenon will last
  • Added pollution in the form of waste and vehicle fumes

Tourism, however, is not seen as a part of amenity migration. Tourists typically visit without the intention to reside or earn a living in their destinations, while amenity migrants intend to settle in their destinations permanently, seasonally (one or more periods in a year), or intermittently (moving among their residences more frequently). Nevertheless, tourism plays an important role because it could be seen as a first step to amenity migration (Price et al. 1997; Moss 2003; 2006).

In the field studies, so far, it was however close to impossible in every case to distinguish between tourism and amenity migration and e.g. betwenn recreation homes and secondary residences, as the criteria are overlapping. In the academic literature there is no consensus on the demarcation between tourism and amenity migration. While for instance Bartoš (2008) considers a continuous stay of at least one half year imperative, Arnesen (2008) concedes to the possession of a minimally equipped second abode in order to meet the criteria of amenity resident. Milbourne (2007) and Ni Laoire (2007), too, discuss the permanency of migrations to rural areas. In a special issue of the Journal of Rural Studies (23, 2007) they emphasize that not all persons moving to rural places may remain settled in these places. A compilation of the various notions of amenity migration can be found at Chipeniuk (2008).

Amenity settlements in the Alps are situated clearly outside a daily commuting distance and, therefore, do not include the expansion of urban areas ("suburbanization") and the growth of settlements just outside the suburban belt ("exurbanization"; Spectorsky 1955). Exurbanization processes are typical for settlement expansions in the major valleys or in the foothills of the European Alps around/next to the major cities (e.g. Verona, Trento, Bolzano, Marseille, Munich, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Graz, or Ljubljana).

In the Alps, three basic patterns of amenity settlement exist. First, in some areas amenity migration has already led to population growth and settlement expansion. Second, due to persistent unpropitious bio-demographic conditions in many Alpine regions, this immigration has not yet resulted in any population gains. Finally, there are other peripheral areas maintaining the disadvantageous demographic structures with low or no net-immigration and high natural losses.

Research Areas

Before presenting the theses, it seems to be advantageous to offer an insight into the ethnic structure of the Alps (Salvi 1975; Steinicke 2006). Nowhere else in Western Europe is there a greater ethno-cultural diversity than in the Alps - especially in the region of the Eastern Alps, with its small ethnic cultural patterns. In this area, Europe’s three most important language families meet - the Slavics, Romans and Germanics. Within the Alpine region no fewer than nine distinct ethnic groups, majorities and minorities, have settled next to each other and sometimes mixed in an overlapping pattern.


Fig.2: Ethno-Linguistic Minorities in the Italian Alps according to law nr. 482/99


Fig.3: Ethno-Linguistic Minorities in the Italian Alps according to linguistic criteria

In the Italian parts of the Alps we find - side by side with the Italians - numerous ethno-linguistic minorities which may be grouped as follows:

  • National minorities: These are groups whose main area of settlement lies in the neighboring countries, which is where the center of their culture and language is located. They find themselves in an other country as a result of arbitrary borders or of border changes. South Tyrol, the Valcanale, and Venetian Slovenia (Slavia) are national minority areas in the Italian part of the Alps.
  • German language pockets: Because of distinct, subjective factors of ethnicity, the population of the various German-language pockets in the Alps may only conditionally be regarded as national minorities, although the core area of their language lies in an other country. All of them are a result of the expansive settlement policies of the High Middle Ages - when Alemannic (from the Valais Valley) and Bavarian (from Tyrol and Carinthia) colonists were settled to the south of the homogeneous German-speaking lands.
  • Domestic territorial minority groups: An indigenous territorial minority group is an individualistic ethnic group within a given state whose area of settlement forms the core of a distinct language and culture in this world. Contrary to national minorities and language pockets, such a group is generally self-reliant, with few or no prospects for assistance from any other country. In the Italian Alps the representatives of such minority groups are the Occitans/Provençals (living also in France) and Valdotains (Franco-Provençals) in the Western parts, further the Friulians in the Eastern parts, and the Ladins in the Dolomites.

Apart from the South Tyroleans (and the Trieste-Slovenes), none of the minorities mentioned above have ever been counted by the state since WW II.
Nowhere in the European Alps can we find an ethnic minority group whose territory is expanding (Steinicke 2006). Territorial constancy can be found with the German- and Ladin-speaking groups in South Tyrol. However, all other groups are suffering from territorial regression, with a simultaneous shrinking of the minority population.

Case study: Friulian Alps

In 1990, the Friulian Alps belonged to those Italian areas that suffered the heaviest population losses in Italy since the Second World War. While lately it has been possible to expand job opportunities considerably, demographic figures still show a downturn in the mountain regions’ population. In some parts of the Friulian Alps there is even an accumulation of completely abandoned villages ("ghost towns") like nowhere else in the Eastern Alps - despite a population segment of periodic "holidayers." Although the large waves of emigration already tapered off, they have left behind a skewed ratio of older people to the population as a whole. This, in turn, has been accompanied by relatively high death rates and falling birth rates. Since neither the socio-economic development strategies nor the demographic situation have been remedied as yet, and since the implementation of unorthodox promotion strategies seem unrealistic, we may assume that future depopulation processes in Friuli’s mountain region will continue.
Thus, in some valleys of the Friulian Alps, "ghost towns" will not disappear in the future. Nevertheless, we exposed that even in these peripheral areas a demographic countertrend has begun: analyses of the population statistics showed that there is no more migration deficit. Since the end of the 1990s Northern Friuli has been confronted with more in-migrants than emigrants (migration balance 2000–2006: +2.3‰). Due to persistent unfavorable bio-demographic conditions, however, this in-migration has not yet resulted in any population gains.


Thesis 1

In Alpine areas with population losses the negative migratory balance will no longer be decisive; instead, bio-demographic factors (e.g. high proportion of older people and related birth deficits) will become more relevant. Mountain depopulation which is largely based on bio-demographic trends seriously threatens the existence of ethno-cultural minorities. A core area typifying this development are the Friulian Alps.

Thesis 2

Consequently, most of the numerous, abandoned Alpine valleys offer themselves as areas for re-settlement. The main pull factor for this new process will be amenity migration benefiting from the big and favorable real estate market. The provenance of the newcomers are urbanized areas outside the Alps. This process will change the ethnic structure. However, amenity migration will not reach all peripheral high-altitude regions. As a result, in the next 20 years the Italian Alps will experience a fragmenting development within the following two extreme positions: expanding amenity settlements and "ghost towns."


  • What can be said about the overall migration trends in the Italian Alps in the 20th century and in the past years?
  • Are there any differences between regions and valleys?
  • What are the significant socio-economic changes that have occurred in the focused research regions in the Italian Alps during the last 20 years?
  • When and why did the process of re-settling in the high-altitude regions commence?
  • What about the present dimensions of population- and settlement growth in the various high-altitude regions of the Italian Alps?
  • Is there a particular development in the minority regions?
  • Which settlements are expected to expand within the next 20 years and which ones will continue to decrease?
  • Can the "urban refugees" replace economic emigrants and therefore slow down rural depopulation?
  • What about infrastructure and land to build on?
  • Are there any settlements that offer themselves to amenity migration?
  • Where do the new migrants originate from and why did they decide to move to the minority regions?
  • Have they become permanent, seasonal, or intermittent residents in their new destination?
  • Which income group do they belong to?
  • Which role did/does tourism play in amenity settlements of the research area?
  • Is there still agriculture?
  • How have housing and land prices changed?
  • How is the integration of the newcomers handled?
  • Do regional and local policies take the amenity migration phenomenon into account and do communities realize the potential for social and cultural tensions?


  • Arnesen, T. (2008): Recreational home agglomerations in rural areas in Norway as emerging economic and political space. – Presentation at the Banff Conference: Understanding and Managing Amenity-led Migration in Mountain Regions, May 15-17, 2008. – Banff.
  • Bartoš, M. (2008): Place specific character of amenity migration in the Czech Republic. Presentation at the Banff Conference: Understanding and Managing Amenity-led Migration in Mountain Regions, May 15-17, 2008. – Banff.
  • Beismann, M. (2009): Aktueller demographischer Wandel in den italienischen Alpen. Unveröffentlichte Diplomarbeit an der Universität Innsbruck.
  • Čede, P. and E. Steinicke (2007): Ghosttowns in den Ostalpen. Das Phänomen der Entvölkerung im friulanischen Berggebiet. In: Geographica Helvetiva 62: 93-103.
  • Chipeniuk, R. (2008): Defining Amenity Migration: Results from a Survey of Experts (Participants in ‘The Understanding and Managing Amenity-led Migration in Mountain Regions Conference,’ Banff, May 15-19). – Banff.  Survey results (accessed November 2008).
  • Hofmann, D. and E. Steinicke (2004): California’s High Mountain Regions as New Areas for Settlement. In: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 148. Jahrgang, Heft 1: 16-19.
  • Löffler, R. and E. Steinicke (2004): Konsequenzen der Counterurbanisierung im kalifornischen Hochgebirge. In: Mitteilungen der Österreichischen Geographischen Gesellschaft, 146. Jg., Wien 2004, 221-246.  ARTICLE
  • Löffler, R. and E. Steinicke (2006): Counterurbanization and Its Socio-Economic Effects in the High Mountain Areas of the Sierra Nevada (California/Nevada). In: Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 26/1: 64-71.  ARTICLE
  • Löffler, R. and E. Steinicke (2007): Counterurbanization and current transformation in the Sierra Nevada (California/Nevada). In: Geographical Review 97(1): 67-88.  ARTICLE
  • Milbourne, P. (2007): Re-populating rural studies: Migrations, movements and mobilities. In: Journal of Rural Studies 23: 381-386.
  • Moss, L.A.G. (2003): Amenity Migration: Global Phenomenon and Strategic Paradigm For Sustaining Mountain Environmental Quality. Sustainable Mountain Communities Conference III: Environmental Sustainability for Mountain Areas Impacted by Tourism and Amenity Migration The Banff Centre, Canada, 14-18 June 2003. – Banff.
  • Moss, L.A.G. (ed.) (2006): The Amenity Migration. Seeking and Sustaining Mountains and Their Cultures. – Santa Fe.
  • Moss, L.A.G., S. Romella and S. Glorioso (ed.) (2009): Understanding and Managing Amenity-led Migration in Mountain Regions. Proceedings of the Mountain Culture at the Banff Centre conference held May 15-19, 2008. Banff.
  • Ni Laoire, S. (2007): The ‘green, green grass of home’? Return migration to rural Ireland. In: Journal of Rural Studies 23: 332-344.
  • Price, M.F. et al (1997): Tourism and Amenity Migration. – In: Messerli, B. and J.D. Ives (eds.): Mountains of the World: A Global Priority. – New York: 249-280.
  • Salvi, S. (1975): Le lingue tagliate. Storia delle minoranze linguistiche in Italia. Rizzoli, Milano.
  • Spectorsky, A.C.(1955): The Exurbanites. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia.
  • Steinicke, E. (1998): Ethno-political problems at the Austrian-Italian border Borderlands or transborder regions - geographical, social and political problems. Regions and regionalism No. 3. University of Lodz: 150-157.
  • Steinicke, E. (2001): Potential for Conflicts in Areas of Ethno-linguistic Minorities of the Eastern Alps. In: Annales 11, 2 (26): 259-266.
  • Steinicke, E. (2006): Sprachen und Kulturen: zur Zukunft von ethnischer Identität und demographischer Entwicklung in den Alpen. In: Psenner, R. and R. Lackner (eds.): Die Alpen im Jahr 2020 (= alpine space – man & environment, Band 1), innsbruck university press, 93-108.  ARTICLE
  • Steinicke, E. (2008): The impact of current demographic transformation on ethno-linguistic minorities in the Alps. – In: Borsdorf, A., J. Stötter and E. Veulliet (eds.): Managing Alpine Future. Proceedings of the Innsbruck Conference October 15-17, 2007. (= IGF-Forschungsberichte 2). – Wien: 243-252.
  • Williams, P. and A. Gill (2004): Shaping Future Resort Landscapes: Amenity Migration’s Impact on Destination Sense of Place: A Case Study of Whistler, British Columbia. Leisure Futures 2004: 2nd Biennial Conference, 10-12 November 2004. – Bolzano.

Publication: Literature of project members
Projectleader: Dr. Ernst Steinicke
Colleagues:Mag. Michael Beismann
Mag. Roland Löffler
Mag. Judith Walder
maps & models:
field trip photos:Aosta | Friaul | Lombardei | Veneto
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