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Cold beds create hot heads in alpine resorts

During the high season visitors struggle to find a room in St-Luc - but many beds remain empty

Rarely has a people’s initiative generated so much debate in canton Valais than that against the building of second homes – especially in Val d’Anniviers.

The initiative threatens the valley community’s very existence, according to the local council.

“It’s the daftest thing I’ve ever heard!” thunders Maurice Epiney behind the wheel of the bus bringing two dozen or so people up from Sierre into the alpine villages of Val d’Anniviers: tourists with rucksacks, snow shoes and skis sit next to locals with loaded shopping bags and a few foreigners going to their tourism-related jobs.

Epiney spends the entire journey talking to the passenger on the front seat about the initiative “to end the invasive construction of secondary residences”, launched by Helvetia Nostra (Our Switzerland), a lobby group established by leading environmentalist Franz Weber.

If it passes, Epiney says, he won’t even be able to hand his mountain hut onto his son because his son lives outside the canton.

He paints another grim scenario: “My brother-in-law’s joinery would fold and the staff, who all live here, would have to try to find jobs outside the valley.”

Epiney’s fears are not unfounded. The initiative, on which all Swiss voters will have their say on March 11, proposes that the constitution be modified to ensure that secondary residences do not account for more than 20 per cent of residential areas or of the total surface area of each commune.

In the commune of Anniviers, the figure is 70 per cent. In the valley’s best-known resorts, St-Luc and Grimentz, 80 per cent of residences are secondary homes – a Swiss record.


Two of Epiney’s passengers on this sunny but cold February day are Monika Verster and Aschi Meier from Zurich.

They get off at the “St-Luc, Chemin des Caïds” stop, where they have rented, in their words, a “run-of-the-mill” chalet for a week.

They are referring to one of those countless wooden houses which are delivered from the lowlands practically ready for occupation and can be put up in just a few days.

Meier said he would vote in favour of Weber’s initiative – although it would affect offers from which he now benefits.

“It’s a question of preventing the landscape from becoming more and more spoilt by development,” he says.

Irène Spalt and Timucin Demir have hiked with their two children from Grimentz over Chandolin to St-Luc “past so many houses with closed shutters”. This, in their opinion, is “absurd”.

The fact that even in the high season, when it can be hard to get a room in the valley, beds in the village remain “cold” is confirmed by Anne Mathieu, who has lived for 20 years in one of nine apartments in a multi-family house – “often completely alone”.

Her neighbours are second homers whose permanent residence is either in another canton or abroad and who show their faces in St-Luc for only a few weeks a year.

Job threat

“If the Franz Weber initiative is accepted, Anniviers won’t build any more second homes for decades,” the nine-person local council recently told inhabitants in a statement, adding that it threatened jobs, particularly in construction, retail and on the pistes, for example chair lift operators.

Kathy Berset Soliot, a business manager and co-owner of estate agents Afim, agrees.

The three-and-a-half-room apartments which Afim is currently offering in St-Luc cost SFr470,000-600,000 ($515,000-660,000). Maisonettes with five-and-a-half rooms go for between SFr620,000 and SFr1 million.

Soliot says demand for second homes remains strong. “I admit that in recent years we’ve gone a bit far. Certain measures are necessary so that owners rent their properties more often, but not as radical as those demanded by the initiative.”

Role of hotels

Claude Buchs-Favre, owner of the Bella Tola hotel, built in 1859, says the extreme side of the initiative disturbs him, but it’s based on a genuine problem.

Surrounded by modern chalets, his hotel from the beginning of the belle époque period appears almost exotic.

He says the competition from second homes is one-sided. “St-Luc’s three estate agents should be happy that we re-opened the hotel 15 years ago and attracted new clients.”

Many of his formers guests today own second homes in the valley.

“Previously people spent their holidays five, six or even seven times in a hotel. Nowadays guests visit our hotel for the first time and on the last day of their holiday they sign the sale contract for a chalet,” he says.

Fortunately, he adds, the Bella Tola also has a loyal set of regular guests and roughly a third of the 90 guests are children.

“Many families meet here every year, and in the meantime some have become friends with each other and also with us.”


The fact that not only the landscape but also the hotel sector is suffering from the second homes boom is an issue in every alpine canton.

The commune of Anniviers promises measures to support hoteliers, but it prefers to reduce rather than stop the construction of further second homes in the valley.

“We want to reduce by at least half the number of constructions that are built every year, taking into account the ten-year average,” mayor and former senator Simon Epiney tells

Independent of Weber’s initiative, the local council has planned a ban on second homes in the centre of the village. Measures are also in the pipeline to promote first homes.

“A clear majority of people in the valley want to see the construction of second homes reduced,” Epiney says, adding that in recent years promoters had been at work in the valley and that in just a few years countless chalets had been brought over and put up from eastern European countries.

The commune has also planned measures against this development. But Weber’s initiative is not a solution, Epiney believes. Rather it is a threat for the valley, which lives almost exclusively from tourism and in particular from second homes.

He says it would be better to have an initiative that obliges people to occupy second homes more.

Val d’Anniviers is a French-speaking alpine valley, situated in the district of Sierre in canton Valais, which extends south of the Rhone Valley.

The valley was previously home to six municipalities which agreed in November 2006 to merge into one, which was named Anniviers. The merger took place in January 2009. By surface area, it is the fourth-biggest in Switzerland.

After dropping to just over 1,000 in the 1970s, the population is now around 2,500. For tourists there are 25,000 beds, of which 17,500 are in second homes.

The initiative “to end the invasive construction of secondary residences” proposes that the constitution be modified to ensure that secondary residences do not account for more than 20% of residential areas or of the total surface area of each commune.

If successful, the initiative will also oblige each commune to publish a quota plan covering primary residences and an annual report detailing how the plan is being implemented.

Helvetia Nostra says on its website that the initiative does not aim to demolish already established secondary residences. “What is already built or under construction stays there.”

(Translated from German by Thomas Stephens)

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