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Alpine village backs desert king's dream

The resort will cover much of the alpine valley


An Egyptian billionaire, Samih Sawiris, is a step closer to replacing the Swiss army as the key economic force in the alpine village of Andermatt.

Residents have voted overwhelmingly in favour of amending local zoning plans to allow what will be one of the most ambitious tourism projects in the Swiss Alps to go ahead.

Hundreds of voters crowded into Andermatt's community centre on Friday night, agreeing to the changes by a show of hands.

If the people of the neighbouring village of Hospental do the same in a month's time, there will be little standing in the way of Sawiris' large resort.

His hotel division of the family business, the Orascom Group, runs resorts spread across North Africa and the Middle East.

The Andermatt project is the billionaire's attempt to gain a foothold in Europe and it has won favour with locals who believe it will give a large boost to the economically depressed region.

According to Orascom, the Swiss resort will boast five hotels with 800 rooms, 100 villas and 600 apartments. It will attract tourists with high-altitude skiing, an 18-hole golf course, tropical pool and spectacular alpine scenery.

A report by Switzerland's Winterthur College of Applied Sciences estimates that it will generate SFr120 million ($98 million) in added value and create 2,000 jobs, either directly or indirectly.

The resort will fill the vacuum left by the Swiss army's retreat. Andermatt was home to elite mountain units and a shooting range. Where there were once 1,000 troops stationed in the village, there were at last count only 60.

Alpine stronghold

Andermatt was long considered a strategic alpine stronghold due to its position at the crossroads of three alpine passes. But it fell victim to a major restructuring of the armed forces and a new policy placing less emphasis on defending against overland invasions.

Sawiris has also been fortunate since he has only had to deal with two main landowners: the Swiss government that owned the large parcel of property used by the army, and a cooperative created by a utility and residents. In other parts of the Swiss Alps, the land is often divided up among several if not hundreds of stakeholders.

And a deal was reached late last year with the few farmers who were initially against having their pastures turned into a golf course.

The lack of opposition has been one of the most remarkable aspects of the project to date. Environmental groups voiced their concern about its dimensions but in the end decided against issuing a formal appeal, which could have held up the start of construction for years.

The government was also quick to set a precedent by exempting the proposed resort from a law limiting the sale of property to foreigners.

The resort is expected to take shape by the end of this year - on paper at least - when the architects present their plans.

Construction is due to begin in 2009.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Andermatt has a population of 1,351, and lies at an altitude of 1,444 metres above sea level.
It has about 800 beds in around 20 hotels and guesthouses.
Samih Sawiris plans to more than double the figure with his resort.

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The Sawiris business empire, the Orascom Group, is divided into three sectors: telecommunications, construction and tourism.

Samih Sawiris heads the latter, operating three purpose-built resorts on the Red Sea coast, and is constructing several more in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Mauritius and Morocco.

The company's strategy is "the acquisition of undeveloped land in prime locations, the development and marketing of fully self-sufficient communities..."

The flagship El Gouna resort is a cluster of hotels, restaurants and shopping centres built around artificial lagoons.

Orascom administers the resort with a resident population of 10,000, including its airport, schools and hospital.

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