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 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 Metropole Hotel, 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."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!