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New Highlanders in Traditional Out-migration Areas in the Alps

The Example of the Friulian Alps
Roland Löffler, Michael Beismann, Judith Walder et Ernst Steinicke
Cet article est une traduction de :
New Highlanders in traditionellen Abwanderungsgebieten der Alpen


According to the population and migration development on a municipal level in the Alps since the last decades, it has become obvious that the population gain that began in France in the 1980s has been expanding ever since towards the eastern parts of the Alps. In this study we illustrate the distribution of the newcomers in various distinctiveness such as re-migrants, second home owners, multi-dwelling residents, relationship-migrants, new highlanders, working migrants, but also locals who, within their community, stay in their second home over extended periods.
The effect of this latest demographic trend in the Eastern Alps is exemplified by two case studies in Friuli: First, in the German speaking language pocket of Sauris (Zahre), the influence of especially Italian newcomers on the autochthonous population and its culture can be observed, besides various social and economic aspects. In addition, in eastern Friuli the ongoing revitalization of ghost towns is examined, which represents an extreme case of repopulation and hence the preservation of Alpine settlement areas.

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Texte intégral

Problem definition and methods

1In the last several years, research has increasingly examined the phenomenon of new-immigrant influx in mountain regions. A variety of expressions, such as amenity-led migrants, new highlanders, multi-residence dwellers, lifestyle migrants, or neoruralists, describe the new mountain residents (Stewart, 2002; Moss, 2006; Moss et al., 2009; Perlik, 2011; 2012; Löffler, Steinicke, 2007; McIntyre, 2008; Gosnell, Abrams, 2011; Abrams et al., 2012). Studies of this process, covering the entire Alpine region, are limited to only a few works that provide mostly a general overview (Perlik, 2006; Corrado, 2010; Messerli et al., 2011; Bender, Kanitscheider, 2012; 2013; Čede et al. 2014).

2In contrast, a wealth of case studies on selected parts of the Alps already exists, particularly on the Italian Alps (e.g. “L'Associazione Dislivelli;” Ferrario, 2009; Beismann et al., 2012; Steinicke et al., 2011; 2012; 2014), in which it was clearly demonstrated that in various areas predominant out-migration over decades was replaced by a new immigration. Often these newcomers are so-called amenity migrants, persons who deliberately opt for a life in the mountains, leaving the non-Alpine towns behind, and thereby contribute to a revitalization and preservation of peripheral mountain villages. The studies in the Alps also show that this phenomenon had already begun in the 1960s in France and from around 1990 has also been detectable in the Italian Western Alps. Meanwhile traditional out-migration areas in the Italian Eastern Alps and the Slovenian Alps are also affected, where immigration, however, is not always statistically noticeable in population development (Steinicke et al., 2012).

3This work aims therefore to confirm empirically this demographic development in the Alps that is spreading from west to east. Subsequently, the study focuses on the eastern part of the Italian Alps. By the example of Friulian valley communities it analyzes on the one hand the new immigration in macro scale and incorporates it into a theoretical concept, on the other hand it exemplifies the cultural and settlement-geographical effects.

4The study builds upon a pool of methods that make it possible to unite diverse perspectives and approaches. In addition to considering the current state of research, the official statistics of all Alpine countries as well as maps of the last decades are evaluated. In addition to such quantitative facts, rigorous research visits of the authors provide deeper qualitative insights. Among the most important research methods on site are semi-structured interviews with all demographic groups in the study areas: newcomers and locals, owners of second homes, multi-locale residents, businessmen or artists. Expert interviews were performed with municipal employees and staff of official institutions. Specific details on the research design and selection of the samples are described in the respective sections. Another data collection technique that allows valuable insights into the process of new- and re-population of peripherally located settlements is the utilization mapping of the buildings. Furthermore, this study should also benefit from the positive experiences the authors have made with the use of social media in previous studies. Its continuation makes it significantly easier to locate newcomers, to remain in contact with them or to expand existing networks.

The resettlement of the Alpine region – a west-east oriented process

5The following representations of the population dynamics in the Alps are based on the analysis of relevant demographic indicators. In order to compare the statistical picture of the current situation with that of previous decades, the maps of population development in the Alpine region of 1951-1981 and 1981-2000 by Bätzing (2002) were used, generalized and complemented to the present time (Fig. 1). Because of different durations of the comparable periods, the threshold values have been set in relation. All three representations show the areas with significant population losses: whereas up to the turn of the Millennium mainly the western and southern parts of the Alps were still considered the big demographic problem areas in the Alps, the picture has changed significantly over the last decade. While in the west the communities gradually recovered from the massive migration phase, the situation in the East now appears precarious. Specifically, the areas east of the European region Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino emerge today with large population declines. The western Alps, where the problem areas dissolve increasingly and sometimes experience a turnaround toward population growth, are thereby contrasted by a more or less area-wide depopulation tendency in Friuli, Slovenia and particularly in southeast Austria.

Figure 1. Population development in the Alps from 1951 onwards

Figure 1. Population development in the Alps from 1951 onwards

6The demographic east-west contrast becomes even more evident when restricted to the representation of the net migration. Seen from his perspective, Fig. 2 shows the new immigration areas of the Alps, which now lie primarily in the west. But also in the Italian Alps, at least west of the Bellunese, we can find similar processes.

Figure 2. Migration balance in the Alps 2002 – 2012

Figure 2. Migration balance in the Alps 2002 – 2012

7The Italian Eastern Alps and Western Slovenia are undergoing a demographic transformation. Although population losses continue to exist, the main factor now in the development of the population is the birth deficit, which appears as bio-demographic consequence of decades to centuries of out-migration. Without doubt, this still has an effect demographically, but it steadily decreases in intensity, impressively demonstrated by the declining rates of depopulation in the Montagna Friulana (Tab. 1).

Tab 1. Decrease of depopulation in the Friulian mountains (%)


depopulation p.a.


depopulation p.a.













Source: ISTAT 2013, 1955 ff.; calculations by the authors

8Relevant studies that demonstrate whether similar processes are at work in the demographic problem areas of Switzerland or in the German Alpine regions are still absent. The same applies to the regions of Southeast Austria, which numerically and in surface area have become the largest out-migration area in the Alps.

9In the following study, however, the new mountain residents should be examined on the example of the Montagna Friulana. This mountainous part that throughout the Alps suffered the greatest population decline since World War II is particularly suitable as a model to exemplify the effects of the current immigration activity. Furthermore, first investigation results are available for the Julian Alps, upon which the present study can both theoretically and empirically build (Steinicke et al., 2012).

The conceptual model of “New Highlanders”

10The concept of Amenity Migration has been allegorized repeatedly in recent years (e.g, McIntyre, 2009 p. 240; Moss, 2006 p. 11; Glorioso, Moss 2012, p. 44). Regarding the Italian Alpine region, the new immigration has already been the subject of modeling, too. The immigrants were thereby categorized according to their length of stay in the mountains, and subsequently their dissemination was simulated by the example of an idealized Italian Alpine Valley (Beismann et al., 2012, p. XIX; Steinicke et al., 2012, p. 335).

  • 1 Understanding and Managing Amenity-led Migration in Mountain Regions

11After further research on site, as well as extensive discussions with presenters at the amenity-led migration conference in Banff, Canada, in 20081, we developed a model that represents the composition of the population, the migration flows from and to the outside, as well as potential categories of transitions within a study area such as settlement or valley community (Fig. 3). In addition to tourists, seasonal workers, owners of second and holiday homes, as well as multi-home owners count among the non-year-round resident population. The latter are distinguished from second-home and vacation apartment owners through a longer period of annual presence; at this place of residence they pursue their work (except pensioners) and participate in the social life of the village community. Similarly, seasonal workers, often spending several months on site, are usually well integrated in the community due to the long, continuous duration of their stay. Migrant workers are usually present throughout the year and get involved – depending on personal interests  to varying degrees in the village life.

12New highlanders have deliberately opted for a life in the mountains and contribute in many cases through entrepreneurship to an integral village life. The majority of these immigrants – often families with children – are in the midst of their careers, and either brought their vocations with them or created new ones on site. This part of the working population includes those people who, thanks to modern telecommunications technologies, work from home and commute only on some days to meetings or appointments in the major centers.

13In the area of overlap between local population and new highlanders are on the one hand remigrants, that is locals who emigrated in search of work and have returned after their retirement, and on the other hand so-called relationship migrants, who immigrated into the community as a result of a partnership or marriage.

Figure 3. Model of New Highlanders

Figure 3. Model of New Highlanders

14The black, dashed arrows in Figure 3 illustrate possible transitions between the defined categories of residents: for example, an owner of a holiday home can over time become a multi-home resident or a new highlander; or a seasonal worker can turn into a new highlander, if he decides to relocate his residence completely into the community of his work. The former “classic” development from the tourist who first repeatedly returns, later acquires a second home and advances from the resident of multiple homes to the new highlander, is therefore no longer mandatory. Conversations with new immigrants show that holidays are frequently planned specifically to explore potential target areas for a future change of residence. The interested parties get first impressions and information from the Internet, where communities and real estate offices often actively seek new residents or buyers.

15Obviously, both immigration and emigration are strongly dependent on the financial situation of the migrants, the development of real estate prices and living expenses, as well as the attractiveness of the community. The latter is perceived subjectively and individually very differently, with tranquility, security, close proximity to nature, and quality of climate and air are almost always among the most important motives. Remarkably, the cultural features of a community, especially in municipalities with ethno-linguistic minorities, are often explicitly mentioned as a pull factor.

New immigrants in the Friulian Mountains

16For centuries all the mountain communities in Friuli have been characterized by a massive emigration. Until the 1950s, the birth surplus could still absorb the depopulation rates to some extent, but then the bio-demographic ramifications of previous migration phases became noticeable: even after an emigration freeze the rest of the population of Northern Friuli is no longer able to raise the reproduction rate as it would be required to end the ongoing depopulation (Steinicke, 1991). The catastrophic earthquake of 1976 that widely destroyed the Northern Friulian settlement area resulted in a population concentration in the municipalities’ main towns and a thinning of residents in the periphery.

17Even today the statistical findings show population losses; it could therefore be assumed that no traces of a demographic trend reversal could be detected in the Montagna friulana. Our research shows, however, that the latest demographic developments in this area basically do not differ from those in the valleys of the Italian Western Alps. Even though the number of immigrants is lower, in all the valley communities – even in the most remote parts  new residents with origins outside the Alps can be encountered. The fact that here in the East the entire development began later and has progressed more slowly is attributable to the previously outlined unfavorable population-biological structures. On the other hand, absent here unlike in the Italian Western Alps are the major metropolitan areas such as Turin, Milan and Genoa, which exert enormous pressure on the neighboring mountain regions. Furthermore, no centrally planned job creation took place here, as it was the case for example in the French Alps with the formation of the ski resorts (“le plan neige”) in the 1960s.

18Two case studies demonstrate the impact the current demographic trend meanwhile also has in the Eastern Alps, and that areas with a total population decline are indeed among the new-arrival regions of the Alps: In the ethno-linguistic minority community of Sauris (German: Zahre) can, besides socio-economic aspects of immigration, in particular the influence of Italian-speaking newcomers upon the indigenous population and their typical local language and culture be detected. Following this, an extreme case of revival of the Alpine settlement area is illuminated with the progressive re-population of former ghost villages or those settlements highly vulnerable to abandonment as they are mainly found in the Canal del Ferro at the Slovenian border.

19The data acquisition technique is based in both cases on comprehensive mapping of the settlements (with local assistance) and guideline interviews with the residents. While it is virtually a full survey in the villages endangered from abandonment, the number of surveyed locals and newcomers in Sauris is around 60.

The German-speaking language pocket Sauris/Zahre in transition

20The municipality in Friuli at the highest altitude (Sauris di Sotto 1,215 m, Sauris di Sopra 1,390 m a.s.l.) was settled around the mid-13th century from the German-speaking Val Pusteria and to this day could preserve its own language, an archaic form of the Tyrolean Puster Valley dialect not least because of the seclusion that lasted over centuries (Hornung, 1972; Baum, 1980; Denison, 1982). Sauris represents a special case in two ways: one, as a German-language island characterized by its unique language and culture, on the other hand as an area distinguished by a rapid structural transformation from an agricultural settlement to one of economic and tourist activity (Steinicke, 1986; 1991).

21From World War II, the population of the municipality of Sauris declined continuously (1951: pop. 885) until the early 1980s, following the Northern Friulian trend. Reduced by half, since the end of the 1990s, however, it has leveled out at around 420 inhabitants (2012: 429), which is related to the relatively favorable local job opportunities in the secondary and tertiary sectors. Today, in addition to approximately 50 commuters, some of the Romanian guest-workers who are employed in local businesses also benefit from the sound labor market situation (especially in the sausage production). Overall, the community has recorded a population gain of 1.7% in the last ten years despite continued unfavorable bio-demographic factors.

22In retrospect, structural change thus prevented an extensive depopulation; however, together with the community’s newly awakened awareness in the 1980s of its own culture and language and associated tourism marketing of these features, a somewhat contradictory situation emerged: although the settlement with its rustic wooden buildings and flower-filled balconies gives the impression of an intact rural world, traditional mountain farming agriculture is no longer practiced by anyone in the village. Rather than take over the parental farms, the young generation has decided in favor of the less time-intensive employment in trade and tourism. The ten alpine pastures in the municipal area are managed mainly by the neighboring communities, including by a non-resident large-scale farmer, who is not only the main customer of the community’s entire hay harvest but will in future achieve added value with an agritourism enterprise.

23With regard to the development of tourism, in 1994 the community adopted the concept of “albergo diffuso”2 developed in the 1980s. Accordingly, the traditional but partially dilapidated building stock was renovated to provide housing. In addition to the complete range of a regular hotel operation, the concept is intended to offer the guests an authentic experience in the village. The center of this form of tourist accommodation is located in Sauris di Sopra but now encompasses a total of approximately 140 beds in the whole community. According to the current accommodation directory, there are an additional 189 beds in the municipality, mainly in smaller pensions. All medium and large hotel complexes of the 1970s and 80's, however, are presently empty – with one exception – due to non-solvent owners or absence of investors. Their sad appearance is in clear contrast to the revitalized albergo diffuso buildings. A significant part of the residential space of the municipality is designated as second or holiday homes and is used predominantly in the main holiday periods of Easter, at the end of the year, and in the summer but often only on a few weekends a year. The owners come mostly from cities like Udine, Trieste, Bologna and Bergamo, a few also from Germany. The real estate prices have risen, according to information by the local real estate agency, for over 20 years. The locals see the growth of the second-home sector with apprehension, since housing thereby becomes more expensive for them, but they also know that the appearance of the village is a distinctly unique feature in the tourist competition, and its maintenance could not be sustained by them alone. Currently the supply of apartments and houses exceeds the demand, which is mainly explained with a temporary lack of purchasing power of potential customers due to the financial crisis.

24The comprehensive mapping of the utilization of the buildings including the status of residents in the community of Sauris attests to the remarkable proportion of newcomers. Fig. 4 shows this strikingly with an example of the village center of Sauris di Sotto.

Figure 4. Sauris di Sotto: use of buildings and residential status 2013

Figure 4. Sauris di Sotto: use of buildings and residential status 2013

25In the entire community Sauris, resettled (marriage) partners whose native language is in most cases Italian, or less often Friulian, can be found in 35 households. While such an influx in the Italian-speaking mountain communities is usually viewed as an advantage, the locals interviewed in Sauris expressed mainly skepticism: they see the relationship-migrants as the main reason for the extinction of the local idiom and the disappearance of their particular ethnic identity. This, however, applies to the other new immigrants only to a lesser extent as they are, in contrast to the intermarriage partners, not directly engaged in the inner-family everyday language use.

26In Fig. 5, the different categories of immigrants, as they are exhibited in Fig. 3, are applied to the municipality of Sauris. Amenity Migrants contribute significantly to the positive migration balance and exert positive influence, especially in the economic and cultural sectors. In Zahre, as in other peripheral municipalities in the Italian Alps (Steinicke et al., 2011), are also newcomers who have built their new center of life here: a new highlander for example set up a cheese shop where he sells home-grown products, as well as cheese from high pastures in the surrounding areas. Two other newcomers run a hotel restaurant with cuisine that is known far beyond the municipal boundaries. Another newcomer operates the village shop and the tavern that especially the locals like to frequent. All other new arrivals that were interviewed also participate with engagement in community life, promote the rural culture and assist in the organization and operation of events and festivals.

Figure 5. Model of New Highlanders in the Community of Sauris

Figure 5. Model of New Highlanders in the Community of Sauris

Canal del Ferro – re-population of ghost towns

27The Canal del Ferro in the far northeast of Friuli can be viewed as an extreme case with regard to depopulation. Between the years 1951 and 2011, the population decreased in this area, which includes the six municipalities Chiusaforte, Dogna, Moggio Udinese, Pontebba, Resia and Resiutta, from 15,107 to 5,703 (minus 62%); as a consequence, in the 1980s and 90s even entire villages were deserted. This process affected particularly side valleys and zones at higher altitude (Steinicke, 1991, p. 75). Meanwhile also here, nonetheless, signs of a re-population are emerging.

28After the earthquake disaster of 1976, a majority of the inhabitants of North Friuli moved by necessity into so-called prefabbricati, prefabricated cottages which were built either along the valley floor or in the main town at the exit of the valley. This initiated the emergence of ghost towns. For 1988, Steinicke (1991, p. 116) registered 18 totally and seven partially deserted communities; in 2005, Čede and Steinicke (2007) mapped nine abandoned villages with largely desolate buildings, and another nine where most of the houses were still intact.

29But here too, the new immigration has changed the conditions in recent years.

Figure 6. Population and settlements in the Canal del Ferro 2013

Figure 6. Population and settlements in the Canal del Ferro 2013

30In the fall of 2013 only one completely abandoned village of ruinsChiout degli Uomini in the Raccolana Valley – and the largely derelict settlement Riulade in the Alba Valley were found throughout the area. In the meantime, however, three houses were renovated in the latter settlement for sporadic stay (Fig. 6). In each of five other localities, all difficult to reach by motorized vehicles, lives only one (elderly) person throughout the year. While these residents are from the area, an exception is Morôlz above the Àupa Valley: There, for the last six years, an amenity migrant from Tuscany has lived who works for a scientific institute in Paris and takes advantage of modern telecommunications technology. The other former ghost towns are presently all inhabited during the warm season. Regions of origin of second-home and vacation-home owners now extend beyond the municipal boundaries, and time and again foreign “temporary tenants” are in residence. Likewise, the settlements formerly endangered of abandonment have gained new residents, often from abroad. An example presents a young newcomer couple from London that besides a number of other amenity migrants lives among the approximately 50 inhabitants of the village Dordolla in the Àupa Valley (Fig. 7). The young immigrants’ motives for relocating here were a life with people instead of against them,” the desire to grow their own vegetables, and to have more time for meaningful work and at the same time require less money.” Both are integrated in the village, contribute their skills, help with events and festivals, and want to continue living in Dordolla in the future.

Figure 7. Population and settlements in the Val Àupa 1989 and 2013

Figure 7. Population and settlements in the Val Àupa 1989 and 2013

31Undoubtedly, without the seasonal residents, whether local or from outside, there would be considerably more signs of village abandonment in the Canal del Ferro. Due to renovations and maintenance of the houses, there is even the theoretical possibility of a genuine revitalization through future generations. Representative for this can be the village of Stavoli (Fig. 8). As many as half of the 71 houses are second homes to people, mainly from Moggio Udinese, but also from Gemona, Udine, Trieste and Pordenone. Furthermore, the majority of the (still) empty houses is in good condition and has potential to be inhabited. This is noteworthy and astonishing mainly because the settlement can be reached only after an hour’s walk. A materials cable lift represents the only transportation aid, but it also ends a few hundred meters from the settlement.

Figure 8. Case study Stavoli 2013

Figure 8. Case study Stavoli 2013

32Probably the major problem in many peripheral mountain communities regarding preservation of the houses is the sales transaction, since multiple heirs are invariably involved in the division of the estate. In too many cases these parties are not in agreement, which impedes the real estate transaction and consequently results in the properties’ falling to ruin.

33The new immigration, however, cannot stop the steady decline of the agricultural lands. This is confirmed not only by the landscape’s appearance but also by the numbers of the 6th Agricultural Census, which shows that the agricultural lands in the Canal del Ferro decreased between 1982 and 2010 by 91% and the number of farms by 93% (Tab. 2). Another, clear indication for the agricultural decline is the scrub encroachment, some of which extends already to the outskirts. However, this is not a characteristic of the Canal del Ferro, but rather shapes the landscape in large parts of the Italian Alps.

Table 2. Agricultural key figures in the Canal del Ferro 1982-2010

Agricultural Indicators





Agricultural land (in ha)





Number of agricultural holdings





Source: 6° Censimento agricoltura 2010


34The phenomenon of amenity migration in the Alpine region is to be found in different temporal, spatial and quantitative manifestations. Beginning from the origins in the French Alps in the 1960s it diffuses into the Italian Alps, where the agglomerations of the Padania are forming favorable conditions for the influx of urban population into the mountains. This study demonstrates – although the presumption has thus far not been sufficiently proven – that the new immigration has now reached the Italian Eastern Alps. The example of North Friuli shows that net migration, viewed in isolation, hardly reflects the demographic phenomenon in question, since especially in this classic depopulation area parallel migration trends into the cities of the Po Valley continue to exist. As well, due to high birth deficits the influence of the new highlanders upon the development of the population figures is often low. In addition, compared to North-West Italy the smaller urban regions in the east are already home to fewer potential immigrants. Even if in many cases it is not a mass phenomenon and the resettlement is not always statistically significant, the study has shown that already a few immigrants can serve to stimulate a revitalization in depopulated mountain settlements.

35Positive effects of the newcomers in remote high-mountain regions of the Alps are the stabilization or revitalization of local structures and the associated prevention of abandonment and desertion of settlements. Through innovation, amenity migrants also produce impulses for an upturn in the social and economic life of a community. Even those who do not live there all year contribute by the maintenance of their homes, which the autochthonous population no longer could accomplish alone. Due to the high emigration figures of recent decades and the associated adverse bio-demographic situation, the new highlanders counteract a (further) increased proportion of elderly persons and declining birth rates. The example of the German-language pocket of Sauris/Zahre illustrates that, even though the new immigrants do not or cannot contribute to the preservation of the local idiom, it is especially they who stand out through various activities and foster regional and cultural characteristics.

36With regard to the long-term use of the living space by the multi-residence population and new highlanders, it will be decisive whether the following generation will remain in the mountains or in turn migrate again.

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1 Understanding and Managing Amenity-led Migration in Mountain Regions


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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Population development in the Alps from 1951 onwards
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Titre Figure 2. Migration balance in the Alps 2002 – 2012
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Titre Figure 3. Model of New Highlanders
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Titre Figure 4. Sauris di Sotto: use of buildings and residential status 2013
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Titre Figure 5. Model of New Highlanders in the Community of Sauris
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Titre Figure 6. Population and settlements in the Canal del Ferro 2013
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Titre Figure 7. Population and settlements in the Val Àupa 1989 and 2013
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Titre Figure 8. Case study Stavoli 2013
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Référence électronique

Roland Löffler, Michael Beismann, Judith Walder et Ernst Steinicke, « New Highlanders in Traditional Out-migration Areas in the Alps », Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 102-3 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 février 2015, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rga.2546

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Roland Löffler

Member of the “Demographic Change of the Alps” (DCA) research group and PhD student at the Institute of Geography, University of Innsbruck, Austria

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Michael Beismann

Member of the “Demographic Change of the Alps” (DCA) research group and PhD student at the Institute of Geography, University of Innsbruck, Austria

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Judith Walder

Member of the “Demographic Change of the Alps” (DCA) research group and PhD student at the Institute of Geography, University of Innsbruck, Austria

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Ernst Steinicke

Professor at the Institute of Geography, University of Innsbruck, Austria; director of the research group “Demographic Change of the Alps” (DCA)

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Licence Creative Commons
La Revue de Géographie Alpine est mise à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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