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food / travel

Interlaken, The New Swiss Mecca For Rich Muslim Tourists

The boom from Gulf countries is the direct result of a promotional campaign that features halal menus, Arabic speakers and prayer mat in front of hotels.

Canoeing in burqa
Canoeing in burqa
Mehdi Atmani

INTERLAKEN — By the end of June, the "Indian summer" in this lakeside Swiss town was already ending. Along the Höheweg, the avenue of Interlaken's luxury watchmakers and five-star hotels, just a few Indian travelers remain, scattered among the continuous flow of Chinese visitors. One tourist season is ending, but another is about to start.

A few days before the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, this tourist destination is working on the last details to welcome the flow of wealthy Arabs tourists about to turn up: restaurant menus translated in Arabic are brought out, and watchmakers are refilling their stock of luxury models.

From the beginning of July, people from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Oman start to flock to the Swiss city. With a daily spending average of 430 Swiss Francs ($448), they are by far the biggest windfall each year, four times more than domestic Swiss visitors.

These clients do not come to Switzerland for the mountains, preferring horse-drawn carriage rides to long hikes. Located on a plain between two lakes, Interlaken is the perfect destination for them. Everything is ready to welcome them, including Arabic-speaking employees and guides in front of the town's hotels.

Contrary to Chinese or Japanese tourists, who are usually on organized tours, Arab tourists don't plan their stay. It means the city needs to double the efforts to be attractive for them – and push them to spend. Interlaken's tourist office has invested in a huge communication campaign long before their arrival, with a task force in the Emirates in charge of promoting the city through commercials, conferences and press trips for Arab journalists.

In Interlaken, 80% of the population is living off tourism. Seducing Arab visitors has become a necessity, and it requires some adjustments: halal menus in the restaurants, "halal cruises' on the lake, paragliding that allows wearing the veil. Some websites such as interlakenforarabs.ch lists and references all the activities available for Muslim tourists who want to have fun while remaining among their own community.

Visit rates from Gulf countries to Interlaken have risen by more than 2,000% over the past 12 years

Such efforts have made Interlaken the new leading travel destination for Middle East visitors in Switzerland. In 2016, it overtook Geneva in terms of number of nights spent in the city by such arrivals. In Switzerland, tourism from Gulf countries represents 413 million Swiss Francs ($430 million), with 25% coming from Interlaken.

Part of the boom may be attributed to a promotion campaign by the city started a few years ago that encourages storekeepers and hoteliers to learn Arabic. Visit rates from Gulf countries to Interlaken have risen by more than 2,000% over the past 12 years, exceeding the growth in Chinese tourists.

At the end of the Höheweg Avenue, Marco von Euw, manager of the four-star MetropoleHotel, says clients from Gulf countries represent 20% of his revenue. The 44-year-old pays attention to his customers' needs. His restaurant offers a Halal menu, and he has prayer mats on hand. "Our customers who use them are the only ones who notice," von Euw says.

Camping sites don't benefit at all.

But all these changes are not to everyone's taste. Not long ago, von Euw received anonymous faxes calling him as an "Islamist." But for him, "tourism is all about adaptation. You will feel more welcomed if you are understood." Similar attention to habits is paid to Chinese and Indian visitors.

Still, there are economic doubts as well. Sure, the watchmakers and luxury hotel owners are enjoying the benefits of this wealthy clientele; but small hotels and camping sites don't benefit at all. Indeed only 1% of Arab tourists stay in hotels with three stars or below. And there are now fewer tourists from the rest of Europe (Germans, English and Spanish) as the Swiss franc gets stronger.

Photo: Interlaken for Arabs Facebook page

Some locals compare the Interlaken administration's tourist strategy with those European leaders who ignore human rights concerns to conclude lucrative commercial deals with Saudi Arabia. Res Grossniklaus, 71, and owner of a three-star hotel, says he has nothing against Arabs, but does not want to break with Swiss values.

"When I travel, I accept the rules of the country I'm visiting. I expect tourists to respect the Swiss mentality as well," he explains. "I would gladly welcome women wearing the burqa, but in the dining room, every nationality and every culture is equal. If these women want to go along the lake, they have to respect the fact that other women are swimming topless."

Grossniklaus says the expansion of Arabic tourism is a slippery slope that can easily get political, and has been one of the only locals to publicly support for the ban of the full veil on the streets of Interlaken. Swiss may have the opportunity to express their opinion on this subject in a referendum initiative in the coming two years. Interlaken's tourist industry is worried about this project. "We can't trade with the Emirates and refuse to welcome them," says Urs Graf, the city's mayor. "Switzerland is a free country. We don't have the right to choose who can come and how they should dress."

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