The Aran Valley is a small Occitan-speaking enclave with an area of 620 km on Spanish territory on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees in the region of Catalonia. The Occitan spoken in the Aran Valley is a variant of Gascon (differing in certain aspects from the Gascon spoken to the north of the Pyrenees, differences that are mostly attributable to the influence of Castilian and Catalan).
Much of the Aran Valley is covered in forests, with some fields and pastures. It is closer to Toulouse than to Barcelona, the natural entry and exit route being on the French side, while in the south the mountains constitute a natural barrier that is more difficult to surmount. Before the Tunnel de Viella was opened in 1948 (the roadway was not tarred until 1964), the valley was only accessible from the Spanish side in summer.
Between 1940 and 1960 the construction of the tunnel and of various dams ushered in a period of demographic growth, characterized by a decrease in the average age of the population and an increase in the birth rate. The development of tourism triggered off another population boom from 1970, which was particularly noticeable in the main towns and in the villages close to the ski resorts. The structure of the population by age group is now more balanced than in other parts of the Pyrenees, except in some hamlets which seem destined to disappear. The present population (1991 figures) is 6,184. The capital, Viella, has 3,109 inhabitants.
Almost the entire recent history of the Aran Valley has been marked by temporary or permanent emigration, mainly to the towns in the south-west of France and in Catalonia. From the 1950s, all the Pyrenean valleys experienced a rural exodus which resulted in an aging population and abandoned hamlets. Since 1970 the trend has been reversed, with the creation of new jobs in tourism having attracted numerous immigrants, chiefly Castilian speakers.
The main economic activity is currently tourism (winter sports but also summer holidays). Primary industry accounted in 1986 for only 5% of the active population, whereas 67% were employed in the service sector, and the number of those employed in different jobs according to the season was constantly increasing. The standard of living in the Aran Valley is above the Spanish average, with per capita savings and income relatively high and the unemployment rate fairly low. The average income of Aranese speakers was slightly higher than that of non-speakers.