Rural Alpine regions pin their hopes on tourism
Eco-tourism is being vaunted as the potential saviour of economically depressed alpine regions.
At a recent meeting in Willisau, various federal offices and public organisations announced new measures to promote sustainable development in rural mountain areas.
"If you don't have the Matterhorn to sell, you have to be creative," Jürg Schmid of Switzerland Tourism told the gathering of tourism, agriculture and economics experts.
Schmid went on to add that his organisation was finalising plans to launch a campaign in 2004 to promote eco-tourism.
The campaign will mainly benefit parts of the country, which up until now have provided little competition for resorts blessed with well-known natural attractions like the Matterhorn.
But, Schmid stressed, it was first up to the people of Switzerland's rural alpine regions to come up with appealing packages and offers.
In a veiled reference to an alpine landscape blighted by hundreds of ski lifts and cable cars, he warned against the building of new infrastructure which would infringe on sensitive ecosystems.
And he said the packages must focus on promoting environmental awareness, making better use of public transport, investing in the local economy and integrating the local population in the process.
The rural Entlebuch region in canton Lucerne was held up at the meeting as a prime example of how economically depressed regions could help themselves.
Recognised by Unesco as a Biosphere Reserve two years ago, the region used the label to officially launch itself as a tourist destination last year.
Since its recognition by Unesco, the Entlebuch has received generous coverage in the Swiss media and has set up its own office to manage and promote the reserve.
Theo Schnider of the Biosphere Reserve marketing body said eco-tourism provides a chance for rural areas in the Alps to gain as much attention as big resorts.
The low-impact tourist infrastructure in these "new" tourist destinations would be run by farmers and members of the local business community and not property developers or foreign investors.
Schnider said if tourism is carefully managed in the Entlebuch, it should not conflict with environmental goals since biosphere reserves are defined as areas where nature conservation and human activity are not mutually exclusive.
An economics ministry official, Karl Koch, reminded the gathering that the government already pumps more than SFr2 billion ($1.52 billion) a year into nature and landscape preservation.
Koch said while most of this was in the form of agricultural subsidies, the ministry is setting aside more and more money for innovative rural projects which put the accent on tourism.
He was speaking while the federal parliament discussed a new SFr135 million credit to aid the tourist industry, part of which is earmarked for new projects.
For his part, Markus Wildisen of the federal agriculture office said the government hoped to introduce a soft loans programme next year to assist farmers willing to supplement their income by engaging in tourism.
Other participants at the meeting criticised the government for often supplying the start-up capital to get new ventures off the ground, but not the funding necessary to see them through the first critical years.
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel
While only about six per cent of the Swiss workforce is employed in agriculture, farming is still the key industry in rural and many alpine areas.
But reduced subsidies and lower prices for agriculture products because of trade liberalisation have meant that farmers are searching for new sources of income.
Eco-tourism was held up as one possible solution at a recent meeting in the canton Lucerne town of Willisau.
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