Speak English, will travel

He's the "driver", even if he can't speak a word of English

Tourists travelling around Switzerland are greeted at every turn by English words and phrases.

This content was published on March 18, 2004 minutes

During a trip through the German-speaking Bernese Oberland, swissinfo discovered that even the man operating the train is an “engine driver”.

The journey begins at Bern’s railway station, now called “Rail City”, and leads to Interlaken, a stronghold of English-speaking tourists. About 60 per cent of all visitors here come from overseas.

English is omnipresent in Interlaken. No wonder then that the Bernese Oberland as a tourist paradise was practically invented by the British well over a century ago.

Tourists are spoilt for choice in Interlaken and the surrounding area, and neither the well heeled nor the backpacking crowd have to worry about getting bored or failing to understand the signs.

Mystery Park

They can visit the “Mystery Park” to discover the fantastic theories of best-selling Swiss author Erich von Däniken, head by mountain railway to the “Top of Europe” - the Jungfraujoch - or the 3,000m-high Schilthorn, which is marketed as the “Magic Mountain”.

The stressed tourist can take advantage of a relaxing “Wellness Week” at an Interlaken hotel or choose a “soft adventure”, which amounts to taking the plunge on a “canyoning” tour through a local gorge.

Another attraction in May is the “World Barbecue Gold Cup” event.

Even Swiss tourists wishing to get in some spring skiing in the hills above the resort have to be able to read the English signs if they want to take advantage of the special “Snow ‘n’ Rail” deals.

As tourist director Stefan Otz explains, Interlaken’s marketing campaign is clearly directed at the foreign visitor and not the Swiss.

“Locals don’t have to understand our marketing. We have to run a campaign which suits our target audience,” he said.

Global tourism

Otz, who spent six years working for the Swiss national tourist office in the United States, believes tourism and the English language go hand in hand.

“Tourism is an international business. It would not function without the English language, so we have to follow the trend.”

Even though the number of visitors to Switzerland was down last year, Interlaken saw a four per cent rise.

Otz says English slogans began invading tourism marketing campaigns about ten years ago and the process has intensified over the past three to five years.

Perhaps surprisingly, he says his office has rarely received any complaints from the Swiss, and he personally doesn’t see anything wrong with the development.

“We have to understand that there can be a healthy co-existence between our own language and the Zeitgeist,” he added.

Cuckoo clocks and Big Macs

From Interlaken West railway station, the journey continues on foot through the town, past souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes.

Shop windows display cuckoo clocks and “Swiss Army Knives”. The McDonald’s restaurant is ironically promoting “Schwiizer Wuche” (Swiss week).

The Berner Oberlandbahn train carries passengers from Interlaken to the mountain village of Lauterbrunnen.

An advertising poster promotes the “SnowpenAir” rock concert headlined by Bryan Adams on the ski slopes above Grindelwald. The Swiss group, the “Lovebugs” are also performing.

It is then a 700m near vertical ride with a funicular train to Grütschalp, where the single-carriage Mürrenbahn train is waiting to carry passengers to car-free Mürren.

The Mürren mountain railway was first put in service in 1891. The carriage and furnishings are a throwback to an earlier time but have not escaped the linguistic marketing trend.

Engine driver

“Engine Driver” is emblazoned on the back of the jacket worn by Beat Schneider who guides the train through an idyllic winter landscape.

“It wasn’t my idea,” he said, adding that he didn’t particularly like it, but a couple of English words on his back did not change anything.

An elderly tourist from Germany shook his head. “It’s the same everywhere,” he said. “They’re always trying to please American tourists.”

Hans Meier of the Jungfrau Railways, which owns and operates the Mürrenbahn, says the jacket is part of the drivers’ new outfit and the railways new marketing campaign, and is also a bit of a gag.

But Meier adds that it should also give passengers a feeling of security, and make engine drivers feel more responsibility.

With or without the English name on his back, engine driver Schneider brings the train safely into Mürren station.

The sky clears to reveal the three most majestic peaks of the Bernese Oberland: the Eiger, Mönch and Virgin – sorry, Jungfrau.

swissinfo, Gaby Ochsenbein in Mürren (translation: Dale Bechtel)


The majority of tourists travelling in Switzerland are either Swiss or German.
60 per cent of visitors to the Interlaken area are from overseas; led by the United States, Britain, Japan, Korea and India.
Interlaken saw its share of visitors increase by four per cent last year.

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In brief

English tourists “discovered” the Bernese Alps, with Interlaken at the centre, in the first half of the 19th century.

Alpine tourism took off when the railways reached alpine villages like Interlaken from the 1870s.

Grand hotels with names like Victoria and Regina are holdovers from this golden age of tourism.

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More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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