Switzerland Tourism has taken advantage of the UN Year of the Mountain by recruiting the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, to sell the Swiss Alps.
Annan will be seen enthusing about the Swiss mountains in a documentary to be screened on British television. The 52-minute "Mountain Spirit", which will premiere in Cannes in the spring, is one of a number of projects undertaken by Switzerland Tourism during the Year of the Mountain.
"It would have been unforgivable to miss such an opportunity," says Michel Ferla, deputy head of Swiss Tourism. The aim of the campaign, which will be launched amid much fanfare at the International Tourism Exchange in Berlin on March 17, is unashamedly to use the Year of the Mountain to promote Switzerland as the definitive mountain land.
Tourism versus environment?
There is an obvious connection between the UN event and Switzerland's greatest natural asset. Yet there are many who believe that an aggressive marketing campaign is incompatible with the environmental aims of the International Year of the Mountain. Increased tourism, it is feared, will inevitably damage the fragile alpine ecosystem.
But Ferla says the Swiss have put in place enough checks and balances to prevent ecological degradation.
"We are keen to preserve our environment. We have imposed plenty of limits to prevent us destroying what the mountains have given us," Ferla, who conducted the ten-minute interview with Annan for the broadcast, says.
The interview with Annan was set up thanks to the personal intervention of Adolf Ogi, the former Swiss cabinet minister and current UN special representative for sport. In 2000, Ogi took the UN chief on a well-publicised hike through the mountains around his hometown of Kandersteg.
"We felt it was important for the secretary-general to express what the Year of the Mountain meant to him," Ferla told swissinfo.
He said Annan stressed the importance of mountains for humankind and the need to protect their biodiversity. He also spoke of his own personal relationship with the Swiss Alps, which he regards as a place for spiritual reflection.
In the interview, Annan, by his own admission a poor skier, declares his passion for walking in the mountains in summer: music to the ears of Swiss Tourism, which would like to stress the attractions of the Alps outside the peak winter period.
Switzerland Tourism is encouraging the idea of using cities like Lausanne, Bern or Montreux as bases to visit the mountains in summertime. Annan notes during the interview that when Geneva is cloaked in fog, the mountains barely half an hour away are often clear.
As well as the television documentary, Switzerland Tourism has a number of other ploys to tempt foreigners to visit the Alps.
In July, around 250 foreign journalists will be invited to the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Oberland, which has just been named a World Heritage site. The organisation's website, MySwitzerland.com, will also be given greater prominence and will offer 1,000 tips on how best to enjoy the Alps.
by Roy Probert