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Currying favour in the Bernese Oberland

Curry is making its way alongside traditional Swiss food on the menus of the best hotels and restaurants in the Bernese Oberland. Indian tourists are now flocking to the alpine region alongside Americans, British and Japanese.

But unlike the latter three, Indians are not willing to settle for typical Swiss fare like rösti and fondue.

"We found that last year we did have some problems because some hotels just didn't understand what their Indian guests wanted," said Hannes Imboden, director of tourism for the Bernese Oberland who helped organise a recent series of workshops designed to help staff get ready for the new guests. "We want to give our people some idea of Indian culture, and of Indian food."

The number of Indian tourists coming to Switzerland has increased dramatically. Visitors to Interlaken alone are up 55 percent on last year. Until 1998, it was almost impossible for Indian citizens to travel abroad. Currency export laws restricted the amount of hard currency anyone could take out of the country to 500 US dollars every two years - scarcely enough for a foreign holiday. Now though, those restrictions have been relaxed, and wealthy Indians are starting to travel.

But more liberal currency laws may not be the main reason Indians are descending on the Swiss Alps. The breathtaking alpine scenery figures in at least half a dozen Indian films shot each year; suited as the Alps are to the romantic melodramas so popular with Indian audiences. Millions of Indians have already seen pictures of the Eiger and the Jungfrau, now they want to see the real thing.

"The Indian film industry is a big reason so many Indian citizens are flocking to Switzerland", said Bhim Sain Mukhi, of the Indian embassy in Berne, "they've seen the scenery, and they know Switzerland is about more than chocolate and watches."

One hotelier taking part in the workshops, Roger Jaun, admitted to underestimating the demands made by Indians, "we just served them the same three course menu we offer to all our guests, with beef and pork and so on. Then our guests were very disappointed; they were still hungry."

Now Jaun makes sure he offers a special menu for his Indian guests, which takes account of dietary restrictions such as the Hindu prohibition on the eating of beef. But his Hotel Chalet Oberland is still in a minority in Interlaken.

Trying to take advantage of the situation is Pramod Mathur, who has just opened Interlaken's first Indian restaurant. "They are expecting Indian visitors in their thousands and the infrastructure is just not there. Last summer we saw Indian tourists cooking their own food in the station car park. I understand the locals were shocked, but the Indians just couldn't find the right food anywhere. I'm not asking for the best Indian cuisine, but just the right kinds of things; rice, vegetables and so on. You know with a hungry stomach they won't be able to enjoy the beautiful scenery here."

But some in the tourism industry are uneasy about the new arrivals. "We hear a lot of stories about Indian guests," said hotelier Renee Schneider, "how they talk, how they behave, and so on."

One fear among the Swiss seems to be their treatment at the hands of wealthy Indians used to the formalities of a rigid caste system. "Indian tourists may view people who work in restaurants and hotels as from a lower social order," said Nick Ruebi, of the Schilthorn Railway Company. "So they may appear rude, saying 'do this, give me that,' and so on. But in this situation we should keep smiling, and not take offence. The Indians don't mean to offend us, but many are abroad for the first time, and they don't know our customs. If we tell them in a friendly manner, 'look we speak to each other differently in Switzerland,' things will soon work out."

Ruebi should know. He is a great fan of India, and has already made three trips there to promote the Bernese Oberland as a holiday destination. "It's a great country, a great culture, and a great market," he added, "India has a population of one billion people; that's a fantastic potential for the tourism industry."

Ruebi was one of the speakers at the first workshop. Over 100 members of the tourism trade were in attendance, and as the speeches came to an end, many seemed to be reassured by what they had heard.

"It's a fact that more and more Indian tourists are coming here," said Renee Schneider, "we can't get round it, so we need to talk to them, to get to know them, and to make them happy while they are here."

by Imogen Foulkes


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