St Moritz skis down slippery slope

About SFr300 million has gone into upgrading St Moritz's skiing infrastructure and mountain railways swissinfo.ch

St Moritz is enjoying a massive boost from the Alpine World Ski Championships - the event has attracted investment worth SFr1 billion.

This content was published on January 31, 2003 - 10:11

But the boom has been a mixed blessing for the locals, who are increasingly being priced out of the housing market.

The championships are expected to attract 100,000 spectators and a further 300 million television viewers around the world.

Around SFr1 billion ($732 million) has been invested or is earmarked for projects related directly or indirectly to the event.

A third of that money has been used to upgrade skiing infrastructure in St Moritz and its partner resorts in the Upper Engadine valley.

The jewel in the crown of the investments is a new gondola that whisks up to 700 skiers an hour - twice the previous rate - from Corviglia to the summit of Piz Nair.

Renewable energy

On their way up, skiers pass the start of what will be the longest and steepest starting slope in the history of the men's downhill event, and they may even notice a lonely wind turbine sticking out of the snow.

It is evidence of the resort taking advantage of the championships not only to modernise its ski facilities but also to increase electricity production from renewable energy sources.

Beside the turbine, there are also solar panels lining the tracks of the mountain railway leading up to Corviglia.

"The people of St Moritz have found out that it is important to organise a really big event every ten or 20 years," says Hanspeter Danuser, head of St Moritz tourism.

"These type of events are important to drum up the money necessary to modernise all the facilities, and to let the world know how modern the ski resort has become."

Welcome publicity

The free publicity generated by the world championships is also being welcomed by the people who run the hotels in the Upper Engadine.

"Our hotel is fully booked during the 16 days of the championships and the rest of the season has also been successful so far," says Jürg Mettler, co-owner of the recently renovated three-star hotel, Misani, in the neighbouring village of Celerina.

"Thanks to the championships, we now have the most modern skiing infrastructure, but the publicity is also very important," adds Adrian Stalder, who manages the four-star Hotel Saratz in Pontresina.

"It's great publicity for the whole region when television viewers watching the races see our beautiful mountains," he says. "That's good for the whole region, not just St Moritz."

But not all the attention or investments are promoting a sustainable future for the people of the Upper Engadine.

The economic prosperity of the late 90s, boosted by the prestige accompanying the world championships, has set off a building boom in the region.

The biggest critic of the boom is, surprisingly, Danuser of the tourist office.

Soaring prices

"It is not healthy to have property going for as much as SFr30,000 ($22,000) a square metre," Danuser laments.

With property prices so high, he says his own staff cannot afford to live in St Moritz anymore.

"It's just too expensive and this is also a reason why St Moritz is losing residents. Over the past ten years, the population of St Moritz has decreased from 6,000 to 5,000."

It is not as if there is a shortage of housing. There are about 100,000 available beds in the Upper Engadine and only 20,000 residents in the whole region.

However, more than 60,000 of the beds are in holiday homes and apartments, which Danuser says, are occupied on average only one month of the year.

A citizens' lobby group, Forum Engadin, would like to see an end to the property speculation.

Short-term profits

A leading member of the group and a former Swiss ambassador, Claudio Caratsch, says the building boom is fuelled by short-term profits.

"There is somebody making money by selling the land, and the local councils are cashing in on the various taxes levied, and the people who buy the houses are happy to see the property prices increasing each year," explains Caratsch.

A St Moritz real estate agent, Heini Gantenbein, admits the situation may have got out of hand, but says he expects it to "stabilise" after the world championships.

Ironically, while the world championships are helping create jobs, fewer and fewer working people can afford to live in St Moritz.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

The championships run from February 1 - 16.
About SFr1 billion has been directly or indirectly invested in St Moritz and the surrounding region thanks to the ski event.
Property prices in St Moritz are among the highest in Switzerland.

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In brief

The Alpine World Ski Championships are held every two years. About 400 athletes from 60 different nations are expected to compete.

The championships are expected to attract about 100,000 spectators over the 16 days of the event, as well as nearly 2,000 media representatives.

Nearly 20 television stations will broadcast the races worldwide, to an audience of about 300,000.

St Moritz has taken advantage of the event to invest in modernising its infrastructure and facilities.

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