Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

The necessary evil

The Swiss are proud and private. As a foreigner, you’ll sometimes encounter a hesitancy in their approach and, in thankfully rare cases, be made to feel unwelcome. It’s often a long and trying path to tread before you make in-roads in some areas, and start to see cultural barriers and prejudices that so many locals feel against outsiders start to slip a little.

Although much of Switzerland has opened up to the rest of the world and accepts and welcomes visitors – not just foreigners but even people from other regions of the country – there is still a lingering hesitancy to truly accept outsiders. In many mountain regions, the need for visitors to spend money and help the local economy is great, but many locals still resent this need for reliance on outsiders.

Amongst locals, who may not realise that you can understand their dialect, you’ll often hear defamatory remarks. I’ve been referred to as a “bloody foreigner” on many occasions over the past fifteen years, when the speaker didn’t know I was listening.

There are few places where this feeling is greater than in tourist villages in the alpine valleys. Many older residents are still coming to terms with the influx of visitors which they’ve seen increase rapidly within the past couple of generations. This has never been as true as in the past few years, when the number of Asians and middle-eastern visitors has boomed. Although no different from any other kind of visitor, their outward appearance and different habits cause much stronger, more immediate responses.

The following text is a translation of an article in Grindelwald’s local newspaper, written by local doctor Marc Müller, in which he addresses the subject amongst fellow residents of the valley in which he lives.

Now we know. Those responsible for our tourism industry have done a super job. The number of people staying in the Bernese Oberland overnight has hardly shrunk, despite the “Swiss franc shock” (exchange rate changes). Despite the Germans and English staying away. The chance is high that the Jungfrau Railway will post a record profit again this year. Grindelwald is formally overflowing with tourists.

And yet, it’s somehow unusual. I sense unrest during personal discussions. I hear derogatory remarks from several hotel employees about the odd hygiene habits of their guests. From the laundries come complaints that the bed linen has to be washed up to three times before it’s clean. The traditional attire of our guests is criticized and misunderstood, and in social media channels, there is an increasing number of comments with racist overtones. In all, definitely an unhappy air.

What’s going wrong?

We all live from tourism, we all want more, we all get more. Even in these “difficult times”. Any yet we’re still unhappy about it? Is this the famous song from (the children’s story) “Dr Hans im Schnäggeloch”, who wants everything except what he has? All want tourism, just not the kind which we are receiving?

Can one be choosy these days? Is the only bad guest an absent guest? Are we suddenly unable to cope because the guests are suddenly “different” and not like us? Do we perhaps need more information about them, about their way of life, their needs and habits? An series of articles in the Jungfrau Zeitung? An information evening? A trip to Dubai instead of to Japan?

The situation is, in any event, an occasion to think about our guests, our region, and about ourselves. About what we really want. We’ve decided to open our valley to tourism and live from tourism: now we have to also live with it!

The spirits we called have arrived. Let’s make the best of it, in a friendly way and with a smile which transcends boundaries and builds bridges. A smile is understood in any language. Let’s try it.

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