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Geneva joins world in mourning King Fahd

King Fahd last visited Geneva in 2002 Keystone

As world leaders gather in Saudi Arabia to pay their respects to King Fahd, the city of Geneva has been mourning the loss of a "great friend".

Swiss President Samuel Schmid was in the capital Riyadh on Wednesday to offer condolences for the death of the 84-year-old monarch.

King Fahd, who owned a sumptuous palatial complex in the exclusive suburb of Collonge-Bellerive, had a lifelong love affair with Geneva.

He last visited the city in the summer of 2002 when he set foot for the first time inside his vast Villa de L’Aube estate, with its 17,000-square-metre château and assorted villas.

The arrival of his 350-strong entourage in a fleet of six planes heralded the start of a SFr520 million ($408 million) spending spree, the like of which the city had never seen before.

“He was a very great friend of Geneva. I think he enjoyed the way of life here,” Christian Rey, president of Geneva Tourism, told swissinfo.

“He was one of the first Arab rulers to make the move to Geneva and afterwards many others came here as well, either staying in hotels or buying homes around the city.”

Royal family

According to Eric Kuhne, president of the Geneva Hoteliers’ Association, members of the Saudi royal family have been frequent visitors to the city since the 1980s.

In 2002 members of King Fahd’s court occupied more than half the 410 rooms in the five-star Noga-Hilton – where Kuhne is director – for the entire summer season.

The unexpected windfall even tempted one city centre store to open specially for the royal family outside normal trading hours, earning it a SFr10,000 fine.

But there are fears that the passing of the Saudi monarch – coupled with the death in November of another wealthy visitor, Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates – will damage the city’s tourism industry, particularly the top end of the market.

Kuhne says Geneva’s position as a destination of choice for the Gulf states has already suffered from the introduction of the Schengen visa and the rival attractions of the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

“We saw a drop in numbers in 2004 and they have not been replaced by anybody. You have to remember that they represent a specific type of clientele because of their length of stay and their spending power,” he added.

Kuhne said the timing of the king’s death just ahead of the annual Fêtes de Genève, the city’s summer festival, meant that there would undoubtedly be fewer visitors from Saudi Arabia this year.

Luring visitors

But Rey is not so glum. While mourning the loss of King Fahd, he said he was confident the city would continue to lure visitors from the region.

According to Rey, the Gulf states accounted for 130,000 overnight stays in 2003 – almost six per cent of the total. This was down from 7.5 per cent in 2002, which he classed as an “exceptional year” owing to King Fahd’s visit.

“Over the past few years we have started to diversify our clientele and we are not just targeting high-ranked people,” said Rey. “We now have younger people from the region staying in the three-star hotel category, which is something new for us.”

“We are confident that we will maintain visitor numbers. We have had a long relationship with the region and we hope it will continue.”

Another legacy that the Saudi king leaves in Geneva is the Islamic Cultural Foundation and mosque, founded in 1978.

Spokesman Hafid Ouardiri told the Tribune de Genève newspaper that while King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had set the wheels in motion, it was his successor and brother King Fahd who bankrolled the project to the tune of SFr15 million.

“These funds enabled us to furnish the centre and they still ensure that we have enough money to run the place today,” he said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

Geneva welcomed more than 10,000 tourists from the Gulf states in 2003.
They accounted for 130,000 overnight stays – almost 6% of the total.
75% of Arab visitors to Switzerland stay in the Lake Geneva region.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia died on Monday at the age of 84. He was buried in the capital Riyadh on Tuesday.

The king, who suffered a stroke in 1995, has been succeeded by his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah.

King Fahd, who owned a vast estate on the outskirts of Geneva, last visited the city in 2002 when he underwent a cataract operation.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR