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Grindelwald strives to preserve natural setting

The Bellevue restaurant has changed little over the past 100 years - but the street in front of it has (picture: Heimatmuseum Grindelwald and swissinfo/SRI)

(picture: Heimatmuseum Grindelwald and swissinfo/SRI)

Grindelwald, at the foot of the mighty peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, was among the first alpine villages to attract tourists to its glorious setting. Now, in the new millennium, its beauty remains, but opinions are divided on its development into a modern resort.

In 1838, "Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland" said Grindelwald consisted of "...picturesque wooden cottages, widely scattered over the valley...Its inhabitants are chiefly employed in rearing cattle."

By 1973, the British alpine historian, Ronald Clark, said Grindelwald had "become a textbook example of tourist exploitation...with its urban centre, comfy car parks and chalets climbing the slopes like discarded paper bags on a beach."

Congestion

Since then, the resort has become even more developed. Its main road is clogged with tour buses and holidaymakers' cars.

Last year, Grindelwald counted more than one million overnight stays. Another million people made day trips to the resort.

Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops line the street, and there is nothing particularly Swiss about them. "Onkel Tom's Cabin" sells pizza, a t-shirt shop sells shirts similar to those in Bali or New York.

"The traffic is our biggest problem," admits Joe Luggen, the director of Grindelwald Tourism. "We have over 160 kilometres of roads in Grindelwald. But we have only one road that goes through the town."

But despite the congestion, tourists like what they find. Half of all guest beds in the resort are found in chalets built as second homes or holiday apartments. Year after year, the same holidaymakers rent them. Grindelwald's hotels also count a high number of repeat guests.

For centuries, the village has made an effort to accommodate its visitors and to preserve its beauty, which draws hikers, climbers and skiers as well as more sedentary visitors. Beyond the main road, picturesque chalets dominate the valley landscape. Cows and goats graze in the verdant fields.

Strict codes

"Building codes stem from laws dating back to the 15th century," says Luggen. "Construction is only allowed in the centre of the village, and severe restrictions are placed on building outside the centre since this land is reserved for agriculture."

Hotels and office buildings in the centre are limited to five storeys, while only chalet-style houses up to three storeys high are permitted elsewhere.

It's a far cry from other Swiss alpine villages like the car free resort of Zermatt where high-rise hotels and apartment blocks have obliterated any remnants of the original village, and agriculture has all but disappeared.

"The special thing about Grindelwald is that the development of tourism was very closely tied to agriculture and still is," explains Hans-Ruedi Müller, professor of tourism at the University of Bern.

"There are powerful agricultural cooperatives which influence the development of tourism in the resort," Müller adds. "There are even hotel-farmers. These are farmers who run hotels or vice versa, which is very unusual."

Like the hotel-farmers, many residents are multi-skilled. One local man earns his living as a mountain guide in summer and ski instructor in winter, and fills in the slow periods working as a carpenter and tending to his flock of sheep.

"The hotel business and farming interests are very strongly intertwined," adds Müller. "That means to a large extent the people of Grindelwald have been able to preserve their culture."

As one example, plans to build a nine-hole golf course have up to now been blocked by a farmer's objections. Other projects have been given a green light.

Building has begun on a new luxury hotel and apartment complex which includes a bypass around the train station, and an enlarged pedestrian zone.

It will increase the number of hotel beds in the resort without causing more traffic congestion. And it will complement a new network of electronic road signs, telling car drivers which parking lots are full, and funnelling them to the nearest space.

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