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The short trip that launched a travel empire

The views down to the city and lake stop visitors in their tracks swissinfo.ch

The exceptional bird's eye view from the hill above Zurich is worth much more today than the one franc Alfred Kuoni's first customers paid for the privilege 100 years ago.

This content was published on May 22, 2006 - 17:29

The top of the Uetliberg ridge has been a favourite lookout spot since the 19th century and, in 1906, helped Kuoni start what would become Switzerland's largest travel company.

Travellers today pay SFr25 ($21) just for the return trip by rail. The journey begins on an underground platform at Zurich's main station, and takes day trippers through industrial neighbourhoods before curling around the back of the wooded ridge where it begins its gradual ascent to the top.

Little is known about the first package trips Kuoni sold in May 1906 except that they were journeys by mountain railway up the Uetliberg on Zurich's western flank and the Dolder on the eastern edge.

Both lookout points already had hotels, and Karl Lüönd, author of a new book on Kuoni's history, says Kuoni understood better than anyone how to put together package tours, no matter how modest.

"It was more convenient for people at the time to book a trip through an agency in the centre of town since the railways did not market the journeys properly," Lüönd says.

First package tour

Kuoni, whose travel company was at first merely an extension of his family's successful transport business, had bigger plans. He sold his first package tour abroad – to Egypt – a year after starting in business in 1907.

But selling trips up the Uetliberg and Dolder was the easiest way to generate some initial revenue, since the lookouts had an appeal at the time that is hard to fathom today.

It was the middle of the Belle Époque and grand hotels were going up at an amazing rate across the Swiss Alps and along the French Riviera. Yet travel remained a privilege for the rich.

The only way most could travel abroad was by forking out their life savings to emigrate, buying one-way tickets to the Americas or Australia. Here too, Kuoni made money.

Escape drudgery

One franc was all most Zurich residents - with an average annual salary of SFr100 - could afford to escape occasionally the drudgery of their daily lives and to breath air unpolluted by emissions from the coal-fired stoves and factory furnaces of the city.

The hilltops were the amusement parks of their day, not only affording views of the city and lake but also recreating an artificial alpine world.

As one now finds replicas of the Eiffel Tower and German castles in Las Vegas or Disneyland, 19th century Swiss architects constructed wooden hotels resembling mountain chalets to accentuate the distant views of the Alps.

A deer park was opened on the Uetliberg, as well as an enclosure for bears, and visitors could stroll along a network of trails cut through the forest that were lined with benches, fountains and playgrounds.

"It cannot be denied, taken as a whole, that [the Uetliberg] makes quite an alpine impression," claimed a Zurich newspaper in the same year that Kuoni started his business.

Facelifts

The paths have been maintained and are claimed today by joggers and families with small children out for a Sunday stroll. A minor amusement is the walk from the Sun to Pluto along the Solar System Trail, built on a scale of 1:1,000,000,000.

Stylised deer sculptures, their oversized antlers aglow with lamps, guard the way to the top, which is crowned by the main hotel and, for more than 15 years now, a triangular lookout tower.

The hotel has retained its idyllic wooden façade even if it has undergone a series of facelifts since the 19th century, including a glassed-in extension showcasing a dining room.

The metal tower artificially raises the Uetliberg summit to 900 metres above sea level.

From that height, with the wind in your hair, you can still enjoy the view of the Alps, the city and lake below and the Zurich international airport in the distance - a place of much greater significance for Kuoni today.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zurich

Key facts

Alfred Kuoni founded in 1906 what would become Zurich's third travel agency, as an extension of his family's transportation business.
Kuoni organised his first package tour abroad – to Egypt – in 1907.
The company was incorporated in 1925, when it opened its first branch abroad in Nice.
Today, the group operates in 27 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America with 6,500 employees.
Its turnover in 2005 was SFr3.6 billion ($2.96 billion).

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