As the successful ski resort of Zermatt readies itself for another season, it’s grappling with how to keep development under control. Unlike most mountain destinations, here it’s a few families, not big business, that call the shots.
Taking a walk to the outer roads of the village of Zermatt it’s not unusual to see a new project taking shape. At the time of writing, luxury chalets were being carved out of a steeply sloping piece of land, cranes towering above the complex site.
But along Zermatt’s main stretch, hotels have stood on the same spot, in the hands of the same families, for generations.
“My parents still live next door to us, they always come by to see if things are running smoothly – my mother still walks through the restaurant to see the guests,” Christine Hürlimann-Perren told swissinfo.ch
“ ….and then my cousin runs another hotel. Oh, and my brother runs a hotel [here] too.”
Hürlimann-Perren’s roots in Zermatt go back 400-500 years, and her family name still has a major presence in the village. She is a sixth-generation descendant of Peter Taugwalder, the younger mountain guide who took Edward Whymper and his climbing party on the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in July 1865.
Her grandfather too was a mountain guide, until an accident meant he had to change paths, and led him to setting up a hotel.
Hürlimann-Perren now runs that establishment, the Hotel Alex, located just off the main stretch in Zermatt, with her husband. Take a walk along that road and you’ll see constant reminders of the Perren name, along with the family names of other longstanding Zermatt residents.
From hotels, bakeries and tearooms, to IT consulting firms and utilities management companies – the Perrens, the Biners and the Julens are all well-known families involved in every aspect of village life.
The ‘family-run’ feel of Zermatt is something rather unusual, and is a characteristic that can be at least partially credited for the way it has developed.
In the 1800s the citizens (Burgers) of Zermatt had more rights than non-citizens when it came to matters such as using the alps to raise cattle and chopping wood. Breaking into this formal association, called a citizen’s community (Burgergemeinde), was incredibly difficult, as its members decided who could join, and its purpose was to protect people ‘on the inside’.
Until a would-be member was accepted as a citizen they had to pay large amounts of money for someone else to carry out these tasks for them, and to supply them with produce.
When more and more visitors started coming in the second half of the 19th century, the small farming community began to realise that letting out rooms in their homes was no longer enough.
A few citizens grouped together to develop some of the first hotels, and a non-citizen, Alexander Seiler, though faced with numerous hurdles as an outsider, also became a key player in building up accommodation and the tourism trade.
“I would say it’s quite unique. You have to really look around to find such an important tourism resort where so many hotels are owned by families,” Beat Truffer, who grew up in the village and later wrote a number of books about its history, told swissinfo.ch.
The fact that the citizens all had a say in the village’s affairs also meant that change was carefully considered.
“They were a little bit afraid of what would come. They were not used to foreign people coming to Zermatt,” Truffer explained.
“They lived by agriculture. There was nothing in Zermatt [up until the mid-1800s], no hotels, no infrastructure – nothing. So of course these people were always involved in building all of this.”
People who used to be mountain farmers became mountain guides or worked in the hotels.
“About 100 members of my family still live in Zermatt…it’s a huge family. I think it’s the biggest in Zermatt,” laughs Andreas Biner, leaning back in his chair in the office of Zermatt’s citizens’ community.
He has been president of the community for 13 years, and says his family has roots in Zermatt going back 200-300 years.
“I think there’s hardly anyone here who doesn’t work in tourism,” adds Biner, after listing the various hotels and apartments connected to his close and distant relatives: the Biner bakery, the Biner holiday apartments, Biner IT consulting, Hotel Simi (run by a Biner) and so on.
After World War II more citizens built accommodation for tourists, and in many cases these hotels and the construction companies that built them have stayed in the family, as is the case for the Biners.
Differences in opinion
With so much of a small but prosperous village being in the hands of a relatively small number of people, competition and disagreements are par for the course.
“Of course we are not always best friends, we have different opinions...in the end we will accept the best solution, but before that decision is taken there are a lot of discussions…” says Biner.
Some of these discussions clearly centre around Zermatt’s future. In a town planning concept approved at the start of 2014, residents set out 31 different measures to further develop Zermatt as a top tourist destination, while simultaneously making it an attractive environment in which to live and work – by no means two naturally compatible positions.
Back in 2010 Marc Scheurer, head of marketing for Zermatt Tourism at the time, wrote about his first year in the job in a letter to the readers in the local magazine, Zermatt Inside, “we are here for you – to work for you, not against you”.
Referring to the challenge of developing the area, while preserving the essence of a community, he writes, “Are we now ready to challenge our rather egotistical and often negative way of thinking and to move forward with vigour?”
Most of his time, he goes on to say, was taken up with “internal communications in the village” rather than providing “information and promotion” for Zermatt as he had expected.
“I don’t see more houses as a very, very negative thing. Where more houses are being built, it means that it is a place where more people want to be,” said Heinz Julen.
At the thoroughly trendy Backstage Hotel, owner and artist Julen is giving me a laid back tour of the design-centric penthouse suite.
While Julen is keen to stress his respect for history and even religion, he argues that Zermatt needs to do more to keep ahead in a continuous battle to attract business.
“With my projects I put something on the market and people talk about it. Other hotels that were built in the ‘70s, they have to do something too or [their business] will go down and down. They have to react.”
“Some of them are scared to react, both financially and creatively,” he adds. His projects have not always been popular with the building commissioners, but he’s made it work.
It’s a bold opinion that can’t fit well with the more traditionally-minded hoteliers in the community, and one, he says, that has on occasion caused a stir with the local planning permission committee.
For Hürlimann-Perren at the Hotel Alex, keeping “up to date” is important, but she feels hospitality and personal service are her top priorities.
“There is competition…you have to take care of each guest. Our guests, they come, they hug me, they tell me, ‘we’re back home!’”
Keeping the perfect image of a Swiss, family-run village is delicate work, particularly as this community meets the challenge of marking the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn on July 14, 2015, an event that first drew the world’s eyes to their doorsteps.
“It’s important that we stay authentic, so that people who are here feel like they are in a mountain village, not in a city. We have to be better in quality, but we have to stop the quantity. We are big enough now,” Biner told swissinfo.ch.
Overnight stays in the Alpine regions have been dropping off for a number of years, falling dramatically behind gains made in Swiss cities, so it is a key debate to be had.
One thing all of the residents, citizens or not, can agree on is that the 150th anniversary in 2015 is a big deal, and potentially big business, if they can continue to keep the balance between the feel of a family-run business, and a globally-successful resort.