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Red Sea pioneer to build resort in Swiss Alps

(swissinfo.ch)

A wealthy Egyptian businessman has announced plans to build a luxury resort in Andermatt, which could rescue the economically depressed village.

It is the first time Samih Sawiris, who runs the hotel division of his family's Orascom Group, will venture outside the Middle East and Gulf region with a tourism project.

Hundreds of local residents crowded into Andermatt's community centre on Sunday evening anxious to have the rumours confirmed and to see the Egyptian billionaire for themselves.

The Andermatt authorities and officials of canton Uri introduced Sawiris, comparing his decision to invest hundreds of millions of francs in Andermatt to winning the lottery, and describing it as a "fairy tale from the Arabian Nights".

The entrepreneur behind the gigantic El Gouna resort on Egypt's Red Sea coast used the meeting to charm residents with his vision of a resort of a kind "never seen before in the Alps".

Speaking perfect German, Sawiris said the year-round resort would have a minimum 800 rooms in hotels and holiday flats, a golf course and even a pool with its own sandy beach.

Improve appeal

The plan would more than double the number of existing beds in Andermatt and elevate it from one of the smallest tourist areas in the Alps to a mid-size Swiss resort. Big enough, in Sawiris's words, to make it attractive for international tour operators.

Sawiris's arrival on the scene could not have come at a better time. Andermatt has been losing skilled jobs as a key employer, the Swiss army, reduces its presence in the alpine region.

And even though the village boasts challenging skiing at an altitude that guarantees excellent snow conditions, its tourist industry has not been able to compensate for the job losses.

Andermatt has been considered up until now too small to have the clout to secure financing to expand or upgrade its tourist infrastructure.

Sawiris has recognised its untapped potential, and the army has expressed its willingness to hand over around 600,000 square metres of land for the new resort which, when completed, will be as large as the existing village.

Sun and sand

He is also bucking the trend of the past decade or so, which has seen southern "sun and sand" destinations such as his purpose-built El Gouna become more popular than alpine resorts.

"Whether you are in the Alps or on the beach, you still want rest and relaxation," Sawiris told swissinfo.

"A lot of people in the Alps underestimate that resorts must offer more than just skiing, and that's our know-how."

He said he was eager to take on the challenge of developing a resort in Europe where the "competition is hard".

Using a sport analogy, he likened the Middle East to a "second division" football league: "After you've been successful there, you want to play with the big boys and the big boys are here."

Hurdles

A large part of the challenge for Sawiris is turning the under-developed village into a world-class resort, as well as overcoming the many legal and bureaucratic hurdles particular to Europe and Switzerland.

He said Andermatt was ideally situated in the heart of the Alps with a good network of roads connecting it to the major population centres of Zurich to the north and Milan to the south, and considered himself lucky to have discovered its potential before other investors.

In a region known for its conservative views, there were surprisingly few dissenting voices to be heard during the meeting.

"We have hope again for the future, which we haven't had for a long time," said one resident.

"We are often ridiculed by other Swiss as being backward but it isn't true," he continued. "This proves that we shouldn't be underestimated."

"I've been in Andermatt for 50 years, and spent most of that time in the hotel business and experienced all the highs and lows," said another villager. "I'm very much in favour of the project because it will create jobs."

Economic recovery

"We need tourism and something has to be done to improve the situation since it's has become very bad," explained a woman. "It's going to help our economy recover."

For his part, Josef Dittli, the member of canton Uri's government who convinced Sawiris to come to Andermatt, said he didn't think the new resort was a threat to Andermatt's identity.

"The project as we see it should not undermine the interests of the local population and will be well planned so it is in harmony with the natural environment," he added.

The mayor of Andermatt, Hansueli Kumli, told swissinfo that Sawiris' proposal amounted to a last chance for the region. "If it doesn't go ahead, people will continue to leave. The future will remain bleak."

During the presentation, Sawiris was also touted as the man who "made the desert bloom" in reference to El Gouna, which was built from scratch on a barren stretch of Red Sea coastline.

But Sawiris tried to convince the crowd not to think of their valley as an alpine desert, despite its economic decline. "You already have a lot here that I can work with," he said.

"The project should compliment the existing village and [make Andermatt appear as it would have] had it grown organically over the years to become a world class destination."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Andermatt

Key facts

Andermatt has a population of 1,351, and lies at an altitude of 1,444 metres above sea level.
It has about 800 beds in around 20 hotels and guesthouses.
Samih Sawiris plans to double the figure with his resort.
Local officials do not expect building permits to be issued before mid-2007.

end of infobox

In brief

The Sawiris business empire, the Orascom Group, is divided into three sectors: telecommunications, construction and tourism.

Samih Sawiris heads the latter, operating three purpose-built resorts on the Red Sea coast, and is constructing a fourth and fifth in the United Arab Emirates and in Oman.

The company's strategy is "the acquisition of undeveloped land in prime locations, the development and marketing of fully self-sufficient communities..."

The flagship El Gouna resort is a cluster of hotels, restaurants and shopping centres built around artificial lagoons.

Orascom administers the resort with a resident population of 10,000, including its airport, schools and hospital.

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