The sleepy village of Andermatt will become a “better place” once it’s been transformed into Switzerland’s newest alpine resort, its billionaire backer says.
Egyptian Samih Sawiris tells swissinfo.ch that his three-pronged approach of investment, attracting the right buyers and keeping locals involved will stop it becoming a “ghost town” out of season.
Sawiris’s firm Orascom Development is ploughing over $1 billion (SFr966,000) into the project, his first in Europe. Andermatt, which lies on the Gotthard route, will be another feather in the cap for a firm with a reputation for building new towns, most notably El Gouna in Egypt.
Work has begun on Andermatt’s new centrepiece, the five star Chedi Hotel, as well as apartment complexes and a new road layout. Still to come are more hotels, villas, a leisure centre, and makeovers for the ski facilities and train station.
swissinfo.ch: Orascom Development’s business has been concentrated in warmer climes so far – why have you now focused on Switzerland?
S.S.: We never focus actually. We are always waiting for opportunities and when they arise in a way that they look like they could become real projects, we grab them. But we don’t go out on the map looking for the next war zone. It’s purely opportunistic in the sense that if someone invites us to take a look at a project that could be a replica of El Gouna - which is really our calling card - we go. So, that is how it happened here as well.
swissinfo.ch: At your El Gouna resort, you’re basically administrating a community of around 20,000 people – the hospitals, schools, airport. Is there a risk of you becoming the ‘de facto’ mayor of Andermatt?
S.S.: No, because we are just complementing what is here and good. We are never able to forget - and we shouldn't - that we are accepted as guests or partners, but that this is not ours. At the end of the day there is an existing village with an existing community that has been around for hundreds of years, so there is no way that we have a claim to fame just because we are building a couple of hotels.
swissinfo.ch: How will Andermatt by different to the other 160 or so medium- and large-sized ski resorts in Switzerland?
S.S.: I think it will be unique in the sense that it has so many features that the others don’t have. For example, access. This is the only place that can be reached from Zurich by highway in an hour and a half, two hours from Milan, three and a half hours from Germany. It’s contained. There’s no risk of it overgrowing. The land available is very limited and we have it all.
We have a community that is very proud of its heritage, that is fighting to keep this village intact as it is. They have decreed half of the buildings as non-eligible for non-residents, meaning that if you are just a rich guy from Zurich, you can’t come and buy them out. That is a big difference to other places which, come Easter Monday, become ghost towns.
So we have all these elements and more speaking for Andermatt to be a better place. We can afford to renew the railway station and the ski lifts because our guests will ultimately pay more if there’s a fantastic ski destination. This is a difference why we believe we could do a better job because of the magnitude of the project.
swissinfo.ch: How do you feel now that things are getting underway?
S.S.: Relieved. Last week we literally ironed out the last potential glitch which was the amalgamation of the two ski resorts Sedrun and Andermatt. Now we know that we will eventually have the finest ski area in terms of size per available bed in the whole of Switzerland. This will also be a big image booster for the destination.
swissinfo.ch: Have you had to make any compromises to your initial vision for Andermatt along the way?
S.S.: And how! But they are all for the better because they all were compromises for environmental reasons, for aesthetic reasons, to please the local population. As such it is a compromise in one sense but it is also a guarantee of the project in another sense. Or a further enhancement of the success of the project, so I don’t mind it really.
swissinfo.ch: Your main targets for selling apartments are Britain, Germany and Italy – from which country have you had the best response so far?
S.S.: I hate this statement of target countries. We must make sure – and this is part of your success as a developer and especially when you are developing half the town here – that there is not a single nationality that will claim it as theirs. We don’t want anybody to go here and say ‘Oh my God this is like being in Italy, or Munich’. We don’t do this because it is just bad in the long run.
swissinfo.ch: As a foreign investor here, what do you think about the anti-foreigner sentiment that has been coming from some rightwing quarters in Switzerland and which has led to a minaret ban and a vote in November on foreign criminals?
S.S.: At the end of the day one should never forget that the number of foreigners in this country is the highest in percentage [terms] than in any other European country, in comparison to the actual population. To speak about lack of tolerance for foreigners in this country would be a high exaggeration in my opinion.
And the fact that there are certain people turning excessively right, it’s a trend that you see worldwide. Why do they all of a sudden remember to ban minarets? It’s because in some countries you see that they are now banning churches, so it’s a counter reaction that is both unhealthy but inevitable in a world that is becoming so polarised. I just hope the whole world would stop talking about religion and focus on what is more important for the world.
swissinfo.ch: What would that be?
S.S.: The security and welfare of the younger generation, in order for them to make a better world out of this and not go into the world as greedy people who are insecure, not well fed, not well educated and want to grab. This grabbing mentality that has crept into the generation that is about to rule the world is one of the biggest issues that we have to fight now.
THE NEW ANDERMATT
1.4 million square metres of land
6 hotels in the four and five star sector with 844 hotel rooms and condominiums
490 apartments in 42 buildings
20-30 private villas/holiday homes
35,000 square metres of commercial space
Sports and leisure centre
Congress and concert facilities for up to 600 people
18-hole golf course and a six-hole practice facility
Modernisation of the Andermatt – Oberalp – Sedrun ski area. It will result in an ultramodern ski area with 130 km of pistes.
Opening of The Chedi Andermatt hotel 2013-2014
First apartments due to be ready for new owners in 2013-2014.
Andermatt Swiss Alps has been exempted from the normal “Lex Koller” limitations on property ownership, thereby allowing non‐Swiss buyers to purchase and sell property in the resort without any restrictions.
Egyptian national born in 1957. The Sawiris family is reportedly the wealthiest in Egypt.
Samih’s father Onsi Sawiris started out in agriculture and then moved into construction. His three sons run different arms of the Orascom empire; telecommunications, construction and tourism.
Samih received his diploma in Economic Engineering from the Technical University of Berlin in 1980.
He founded his first company, the National Marine Boat Factory, in the 1980s.
In 1996 he established Orascom Projects for Touristic Development and in 1997 Orascom Hotel Holdings, the two companies that later merged to form Orascom Development Holding.
Currently Sawiris serves as executive chairman of the board of directors and CEO of Orascom Development. The company operates purpose-built resorts on the Red Sea coast, and is constructing several more in Egypt, the UAE, Oman, Mauritius and Morocco. The flagship El Gouna resort is a cluster of hotels, restaurants and shopping centres built around artificial lagoons.
He also serves as chairman and as a member of the boards of a number of subsidiary companies of the Orascom Development Group.
Orascom moved its headquarters to Switzerland in 2008 for tax purposes and to take advantage of Switzerland’s “neutral country” status.