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Following the cheese trail to the Emmental

Emmental accounts for more than 50 per cent of Switzerland's cheese exports

(Keystone)

Cheese is to the Emmental what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco.

That was the message at a recent tourism meeting in the Emmental where guests were told to make better use of the world-famous cheese to market the region as a travel destination.

The meeting drew a large crowd to the village of Signau to discuss the state of Emmental's tourist industry.

The largely agricultural region to the east of Bern (see map in related links) has been experiencing an economic downturn.

Families can no longer depend on farming alone to make ends meet, and ideas are being sought to boost incomes.

Ueli Haldemann, the president of Pro Emmental - the region's tourism and economic umbrella organisation, said he was sick and tired of Emmental's "cow, milk and cheese" image. He stressed that it was time to find a new way forward.

But, according to the evening's guest speaker, Haldemann couldn't be more wrong.

"It is the farmhouses, it is the rural landscape, it is the milk and the cheese - and nothing more," said Kurt Illi, the former tourist director of Lucerne.

"That's exactly what Americans and Asians expect from Switzerland!"

Blind to beauty

Illi even went so far as to tell the crowd they had become blind to the beauty of their own region, with its lush green hills, stout wooden farmhouses and wholesome farm products like Emmental cheese.

Illi revealed how he had used just one image alone to market Lucerne during his 22 years as tourism chief. "It was the tower and the bridge," he said, referring to Lucerne's Water Tower and wooden Chapel Bridge.

On a humorous note, he asked what Paris would be like without the Eiffel Tower or if as many tourists would flock to San Francisco if there was no Golden Gate Bridge.

He compared Lucerne's tower and bridge to these landmarks - sites every tourist wanted to visit at least once in their lifetime.

No one doubts that Illi's emphasis on the "tower and the bridge" have helped turn Lucerne into Switzerland's best-known travel destination, with about five million annual visitors.

In the first nine months of this year, the city of Lucerne counted nearly 700,000 overnight stays in its hotels.

The 60 communities in the 1,000 square kilometre area of the Emmental only managed 100,000 over the same period. The cheese with the holes may be well known, but the region isn't.

"Millions of people still want to go to Paris, Rome and Venice, but tourists returning a second time to Europe, and in particular to Switzerland, want to see more."

Cheese messenger

Illi added that Emmental cheese could be the region's messenger to "attract travellers who want to get off the beaten track" and stay in small, family-run hotels or on farms.

Comparing an agricultural region to a city like Lucerne, though, is like comparing soft and hard cheeses.

"It's a large area with very small communities and few hotels," said Alfred Bauer of Pro Emmental.

"I think Mr Illi is right, however, in saying that our farms are our fortune," he added. "We don't need to build new hotels, but to convince more of our farmers to become active in tourism."

And Bauer reflected on Illi's message: "If cows, milk and cheese are our strengths then we have to find new ways of promoting them."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

Emmental cheese is Switzerland's largest exported foodstuff.
Agriculture employs two-thirds of the region's workforce.
The Emmental attracts relatively few tourists, despite the international reputation of its cheese.

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