Living with the tourists.

Author:Brunjes, Justin
Position:TOURISM
 
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The words "Swiss mountain village" usually evoke images of quaint cottages with a frosting of snow on the roof, cobbled footpaths wandering between cosy homes and a single white church tower perched like a beacon of hope on a small incline. What rarely come to mind are high-rise apartment blocks, traffic jams and chaotic masses of impatient tourists. What one gets more often than not these days, however, is the latter. How did this happen?

Tourism has long ceased to be a cottage industry in Switzerland. Instead, it is one of Switzerland's premier industries, with more than 25 million overnight stays registered between January and August this year, according to the Federal Bureau for Statistics (Bundesamt fur Statistik). But there is a cost to this success ... and change is in the wind as Swiss tourist destinations seek sustainable tourism models.

If you build it, they will come

For many mountain villages, tourism has long been one of the only means to economic wellbeing. The thinking was to increase the number of tourist visits, one needed to increase the number of available beds. Hence the 1970s building-boom in the Alps.

Construction companies realised they could make a killing building vacation homes and flats, then selling them off to urbanites to use five-to-six weeks a year during their holidays. Villages welcomed the investment and rarely thought about the long-term consequences of such rapid development. The result: a veritable explosion of second domiciles across Switzerland, the number of beds more than tripling to 450,000 from 130,000 in 50 years.

Now, many mountain communities are saying "enough".

Impact of rising real estate costs

Today, holiday destinations are overrun during the high-season, while they resemble ghost towns during the off-season. In the Upper Engadine, for example, the high-season population is around 100,000; during the off-season it is around 10,000, according to the Neue Zurcher Zeitung (NZZ).

Wealthier outsiders buy up available properties and land, either for personal use or speculative reasons. This increases the demand for real estate, and when demand increases, the price follows. For example, when the project to turn Andermatt into the next St. Moritz was announced by tourism magnate Samih Sawiris in 2005, local residents witnessed a 30 per cent hike in real estate prices in just a couple of years, according to the Canton Uti property office.

For local residents, this trend would...

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