When I was a boy, we used to borrow rubber dingys and paddle down the river. During holidays, when our parents took us to the mountains, we sought out river gorges, where we swam in natural pools.
Nowadays, even in the Swiss-German idiom, people call these activities "river-rafting" or "canyoning". The other difference is that you have to pay for them. "Adventure Sports" (another English expression that has entered the vocabulary) has become a business.
No other Swiss tourist region has tried to sell itself as a centre for adventure sports as much as the Bernese Oberland. There are about half a dozen operators in and around the town of Interlaken, but if you were to judge from the posters and glaring advertisements in the town and along the way, you'd think there were many more. (In fact, adventure sports represent less than three per cent of all income generated from tourism in the region).
Visiting adventure sports operators, I found the mood gloomy. The month of May marks the beginning of the summer season. Operators and the regional tourist office thought they had done everything to erase the memories of last summer, when 21 tourists died, swept away by a flash flood while canyoning down the Saxet River. The tragedy made international headlines and the operator that led the tour, Adventure World, became infamous.
1999 was adventure sports' "annus horribilis". Tourists turned away, even the demand for river rafting trips collapsed.
This year, the tragedy would have been all but forgotten. The tourist authorities had planned on reopening the Saxet River for canyoning. The Saxet is the backbone of canyoning in the Bernese Oberland. It's the only river that can be used for the sport during the entire season, and the roughly 150 guides in the region have been trained on it, hence know the terrain. Until last year's accident the Saxet River took 60 per cent of all canyoning trips in the Oberland.
The authorities had learned a public relations lesson the hard way. They weren't willing to allow canyoning to resume on the Saxet without the blessing of the victims' relatives. Most of those killed were Australians, and their families and the others were brought to Switzerland for a memorial service. They were to be wined and dined and kindly asked if it was alright if the Saxet was re-opened. The families arrived, but then tragedy struck again.
(Editor's Note: The authorities in canton Berne have since decided to reopen the Saxet River for canyoning trips; officials said the river could be used again for canyoning as of June 1)
On the same day and not far from the Saxet, a young American tourist was given the wrong length of rope for a bungy jump from a cable car and died on impact with the ground. Again, it involved the same operator, Adventure World.
Operators don't quite know how to react to the latest accident. The accidents don't appear to have had a big impact on the demand side. The Swiss themselves are less keen to sign up for a thrill, but foreign tourists come as before, longing for the kick only extreme sports can provide. Chances are, they won't get it by bungy jumping in the Bernese Oberland.
Adventure World, which was the biggest operator, has filed for bankruptcy. No one else in the region is willing to offer bungy jumping. Other firms also face a difficult future. It's written on their faces, even though they think bungy jumping shouldn't be compared with canyoning or river rafting. They think they have done their homework, and ensured that their trips are led by properly trained guides and meet the highest safety standards. To a certain extent, they believe tourists should be responsible for their own actions.
The operators are mostly right, but they dare not say what they think. "Whatever I say will turn against me", is the feeling of one. Tourism has become such an image-driven business that everybody involved, except for the most thick-skinned, has become weary of outsiders, especially journalists. That's another thing you know they're thinking: "we hate journalists up here".
by Markus Haefliger