Travel: Please keep your hands off the wild flowers: The Jungfrau region of Switzerland has paid a high price for being too pretty and too popular, writes Michael Woods

TWO American women strolled along the path beneath Mannlichen, clutching bunches of wild flowers plucked from the wayside. 'I'm like Noah,' one remarked. 'I'm taking two of everything.'

'Are you going to press them?' her friend asked.

'I hadn't really thought about it.'

It comes as no surprise. Switzerland's Jungfrau region was the cradle of Alpine tourism. The 19th-century writers and naturalists were the first: Lord Byron visualised Lauterbrunnen's Staubbach Falls as 'The tail of the pale horse ridden by Death at the Apocalypse'. Downhill skiing was invented in Wengen; Grindelwald boasted the world's first cable car. Today, the superlatives continue - the longest chairlift, highest railway station, longest gondola cableway.

With the tourists come problems. As agriculture and lace-making have been supplanted as the economic breadwinners, the region has suffered 'cultural prostitution': English is spoken as widely as the native German; and, superficially at least, the region has forsaken the culture of the more remote valleys. Skiing has damaged vegetation and concrete spread further into the greenery.

From this selective picture, the Jungfrau region seems one that any reluctant tourist would wish to avoid. Indeed, the Off the Beaten Track guidebook devotes little space to the district, concluding: 'Grindelwald suffers from the same problem as the Lauterbrunnen valley - being too well known.' But to ignore it would be to miss some spectacular scenery; and to betray those in the region who are trying to protect their environment.

A Unesco project gave Grindelwald a bleak choice: unrestricted tourist growth would destroy the environment, but without tourism the economy would collapse. The local authority sought a middle way and drew up a strict plan controlling development to 2000. Lauterbrunnen has planted a tree for every visitor staying in the village; picking wildflowers is illegal; and the number of bottle banks is enough to shame any British town.

The secret of responsible tourism is to get to know the area. Above all, the Jungfrau region should be enjoyed on foot. The extensive network of wanderweg are well-signposted, well-mapped and well-maintained. On foot one can escape from the coach-bound whistle-stop tourists; and find peace, quiet and magnificent views: a return to the Jungfrau region that Byron knew.

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