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Tourist officials call on faithful to come

Putting the finishing touches to a painting of Einsiedeln Abbey, canton Schwyz Keystone

Mountains, lakes, cathedrals. Visitors to Switzerland are being encouraged to discover sites of spiritual significance alongside other attractions.

This content was published on January 17, 2012 - 10:20
Morven McLean and Karin Kamp, swissinfo.ch

The Swiss churches have joined forces with Switzerland Tourism to launch “Switzerland’s Religious Landscape”, aimed at providing Swiss and foreign visitors with an overview of the country’s religious heritage.

Launched at the end of 2011, the German and English language website details the different faiths represented in Switzerland and provides links to information about religious history, sacred buildings and places of pilgrimage.

“Faith-based travel is an interesting niche market for Switzerland,” said Alex Hermann, director for North America at Switzerland Tourism. He added, however, that it was hard to gauge the size of this market.

Lorenz Moser of the Catholic Commission on Tourism, Leisure and Pastoral Care for Pilgrims told swissinfo.ch the site was aimed at all tourists – domestic and foreign.

“It is important to us that tourists are also confronted with the religious dimension and can find information on that. Of course for us there’s also a pastoral aspect to this,” he said.

Hermann points out that Switzerland has plenty of sites for visitors interested in the Christian faith, including the abbey at Einsiedeln, cathedrals such as St Gallen’s, pilgrimage sites such as Flueli-Ranft and part of the Way of St James, which crosses Switzerland from the northeast to the west.

City tours

“Then there are cities with a specific connection to the life of a person of faith. For example, Calvin and Geneva or Zwingli and Zurich as two of the defining personalities of the Reformation in Europe,” he added.

Reformation Tours is a United States-based operator, organising five to ten trips to Switzerland a year.

“The main places we go to are Geneva and Zurich. We often have a couple of nights in Grindelwald [in the Bernese Oberland] so people can go to the Alps,” vice-president Rowena Drinkhouse told swissinfo.ch.

“We plan on travelling with groups to Switzerland more in the future. It’s such a beautiful country, there is so much Christian heritage, and it is an excellent place to travel by either road or rail.”

Hermann says many faith-based tours of Europe make a stop in Switzerland. Usually participants want to combine normal sightseeing with visits to places of religious significance.

“Travellers are not exclusively looking for sites with a religious connection; they combine these with popular sightseeing attractions or even elements of active vacations including walking or hiking trips,” he said.

Christian bias?

The website is the brainchild of the Roman Catholic Church, the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and Switzerland Tourism, and is currently slanted towards the main Christian churches. But other churches and religious communities are encouraged to provide information of their own, as Moser explained.

“The concept is for as neutral as possible an overview of the different faiths in Switzerland,” said Moser.

“The separate religions then have the chance to present themselves in more detail, as the Catholic Church has done. But apart from the Protestant Church no other faith group has yet shown an interest.”

Contacted by swissinfo.ch, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities said they were “not aware” of the Religious Landscape site. Judaism is the fifth-biggest faith group in Switzerland after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism but has a long history in the country.

Jewish history

“It is not our aim to provide touristic information, but we provide information about Judaism in Switzerland on our website,” general-secretary Jonathan Kreutner told swissinfo.ch.

“We are the umbrella organisation of the Jewish communities in Switzerland, and when people contact us for information, we connect them with the specific communities.”

According to Kreutner, there are many Jewish historical sites in Switzerland, which could be of interest to visitors, including the synagogue in Endingen in northern Switzerland.

“Endingen and Lengnau were the only villages where Jews were allowed to live until the late 19th century,” he said, adding that there is a Jewish Culture Path in Endingen-Lengnau.

He also points out that there are a number of Jewish historical buildings in cities such as Zurich and Geneva, which were home to sizeable communities. Also, tours of “Jewish Zurich” are offered by the Zürcher Lehrhaus, an educational establishment promoting dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Lacking visibility

As the project has only been running a couple of months, it is unclear how much resonance it has found among tourists.

Moser says there are no reliable statistics yet on the number of visitors to the site. But he is not particularly upbeat – “I’m afraid not many visitors will have discovered it as it’s rather buried on the Switzerland Tourism site and not easy to find.”

“Our agreement with the Commission on Tourism, Leisure and Pastoral Care for Pilgrims was to provide a link to Switzerland’s Religious Landscape on the Switzerland Tourism website. This link now appears among all external links regarding culture in Switzerland,” responded Switzerland Tourism’s Véronique Kanel.

“In addition, we sent out the press release on behalf of the Commission on Tourism, Leisure and Pastoral Care for Pilgrims, giving the new website an optimal media exposure in Switzerland.”

Hermann of Switzerland Tourism is optimistic though that religious tourism is a growth area.

“Faith-based travel allows us to target potential visitors, especially in parts of the US which traditionally don’t belong to our key markets, such as the Midwest and more rural parts.”

Religious breakdown of the population

Christianity: 79.27% of the resident population

Islam: 4.26% of the resident population

Hinduism: 0.38% of the resident population

Buddhism: 0.29% of the resident population

Judaism: 0.25% of the resident population

Other communities: 0.11% of the resident population

No religious denomination: 11.11% of the resident population

Not specified: 4.33% of the resident population

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