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Switzerland comes clean on its obsession


Cleanliness is commonly considered a Swiss trait, but is Switzerland really as clean as it seems? On a day in early autumn, tourists meander through Bern’s old town. A man cleans a storefront window. A rubbish truck bumps over cobblestones.

Tourists seem impressed. “Yes, it’s definitely clean,” says Craig Oddie of Manchester, Britain, who is visiting the city’s bear park with his family. “Just walking around the public areas you don’t see any litter. The public transport’s always clean. It’s massively better here than it is in England.”

Barbara Cunningham of Canada agrees. “Oh, I think it’s absolutely clean. Absolutely. We came down from the [Klein] Matterhorn, and as the gondola came in there’s a part underneath it—even that  was clean. It didn’t have garbage there, it didn’t have grease, dried grass. Nothing. Spectacularly clean.”

“We know for a fact that Switzerland is perceived as a clean country,” says Veronique Kanel, spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism.

In 2010 the marketing organisation, which receives 60 per cent of its funds from the Swiss government, surveyed 9,000 tourists from 110 countries about their perceptions of Switzerland.

“Cleanliness is spontaneously mentioned as a strength by four per cent of tourists,” says Kanel. That “might not seem very high, but this comes very close to culture and history, which was mentioned by 4.7 per cent of interviewees.” Switzerland’s greatest strength as a destination was nature, spontaneously mentioned by 20 per cent.

Marketing Swiss cleanliness

Switzerland Tourism capitalises on that perception in its most recent advertising campaign, “Switzerland—Summer Holiday”. The television spot, created by Zurich advertising agency Spillmann/Felser/Leo Burnett, takes a humorous approach to that reputation.

Two retired gentlemen are shown in a variety of idyllic Swiss locations, polishing stones, removing an old boot from a pristine lake, cutting blades of grass on their knees. The ad, with the theme “We do everything for your perfect summer holiday,” was running worldwide from April to October (see link).

But does a country’s level of cleanliness have a positive effect on tourism? Not exactly, according to Christian Laesser, professor of tourism and service management at St Gallen University.

Tourists are not “thrilled” by a clean destination; rather, they are “definitely not happy when it’s not clean”, Laesser tells

Laesser also refers to the “relativity of cleanliness”. “With what are you comparing? If I compare Switzerland to, for example, Singapore, I would perceive Switzerland  not as very clean, just as okay clean, but not really especially clean. If you take some other countries then I definitely would perceive this country as clean.”

The local view

Whereas tourists generally perceive Switzerland as pristine, and cleanliness as positive, locals have a variety of perspectives.

“Sometimes I think that Switzerland is almost too clean,” says Monika Jufer, who is Swiss.  “Everything is tidied up and the neighbours get annoyed if  something is left lying around.”

Sankar Navaratnam, who came from Sri Lanka 12 years ago and delivers the post by foot in Bern’s old town, says: “Switzerland is great. Very clean. I think the whole process for disposing of garbage and separating bottles is great.”

But not everyone agrees. Fritz Schmutz, who works in security, is incensed over the litter left by students in public places after the lunch break. “It’s a crime!”

The littering problem

In fact, littering is a growing problem, according to Environment Switzerland 2009, a report from the Federal Environment Office and the Federal Statistical Office.

And several years ago, Roland Scholz, professor of natural and social science interface at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, surveyed 100,000 inhabitants of Winterthur in northern Switzerland and found that 85 per cent of the people complained about the littering and packaging and cigarettes on the ground.

Often, says Scholz, the reason so much litter gathers is that the garbage cans are too small. If a bin is full and one person throws something away beside it, “all the others start, and it’s a kind chain of littering behaviour,” he says.

Addressing this problem is the goal of the Interest Group for a Clean Environment in Switzerland (IGSU), founded in 2007 by two private sector recycling organisations. IGSU produced an anti-littering campaign with posters depicting private spaces overflowing with litter, calling attention to the fact that littering is just as offensive in public as it would be in your private sphere.

Cleaning up Switzerland

Public organisations have also started initiatives to address littering. In 2005, BERNMOBIL formed Team Sauber (clean team), a group of around a dozen asylum seekers who pick up old newspapers, food and garbage left on Bern’s public buses and trams. And in 2010, in an attempt to use incentives to motivate travellers, BERNMOBIL offered ten iPads to people “caught” disposing of their trash correctly in a garbage can.

According to Roland Scholz, many Swiss schools include recycling and waste behaviour in their curriculums. “If you once get this kind of script, which is behind waste management, into your mind if you are young, you have a completely different perception,” he tells

According to Christian Laesser, Switzerland’s ad campaigns imply that, although the country may be considered expensive, you can be sure that the Swiss “do everything to make a holiday perfect, and one of the things is that it’s clean, that things are working”.

Is Switzerland really clean? Perhaps, in the end, it doesn’t matter, as long as people believe that it is.

Of the 20 attributes listed as strengths of Switzerland as a vacation destination, cleanliness ranked 15th, and was mentioned by 4.1 per cent of tourists surveyed.

The top three categories were nature (20.3 per cent), panorama/scenery/landscape (12.8 per cent) and mountains (12.4 per cent).

Vehicles (trams and buses) that are kept clean are less likely to be vandalised.

Littering has a negative effect on passengers’ perception of safety.

Around 15,000 hours per year are devoted to cleaning the city of Bern’s public transport fleet of buses and trams.

Municipal solid waste collected for recycling in Switzerland has more than doubled over the past 20 years, and now comprises more than 50 per cent of total waste.

In 2011 the Swiss Federal Railways collected almost 32,000 tonnes of garbage in trains and train stations.

Fines for littering instituted in canton Lucerne in 2009 were approved by 78 per cent of voters.

(Sources: Switzerland Tourism 2010 survey, Bernmobil, Federal Environment Office 2009 report)

The costs of cleaning up litter and emptying rubbish bins in public places cannot be covered through an annual fee levied on property owners, as the city of Bern had been doing, according to a February 2012, ruling by the Federal Court in Lausanne. The court did find, however, that such costs could be levied on businesses producing disproportionate amounts of litter, “for example, through the levying of a corresponding surcharge”.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR