War overshadows New York festival

A show exploring Swiss stereotypes has been a hit with visitors. swissinfo.ch

A major Swiss festival in New York is continuing despite Swiss opposition to the United States-led war against Iraq and fears of fresh terrorist attacks in the city.

This content was published on March 24, 2003 - 11:31

The eight-week "swisspeaks" festival is designed to strengthen business ties and promote Swiss arts, culture and tourism in the city.

A member of the board and the head of corporate fundraising for the swisspeaks festival, Fabienne Abrecht, admits the event could not have been held at a worse time.

But she says it is too early to say if interest in the festival has dwindled because of the war in Iraq and concerns over fresh terrorist attacks on the city.

The New York State and city governments have responded to the real or perceived threat by introducing what they say is the most comprehensive security operation in the city's history.

Show goes on

Abrecht says the swisspeaks show, now nearing the half way mark, must go on.

"It's not necessary at this point to make any alterations because [we don't want to change the content]," Abrecht told swissinfo.

"And we have commitments to our partners, and as long as they don't see any reason to cancel anything, we don't either."

swisspeaks' partners include leading New York galleries, cinemas and clubs, which all had a large say in the selection of Swiss art and culture for the festival.

Many of the works on show are modern or contemporary, daring New Yorkers to change their preconceived notions of Switzerland.

Central attraction

But the most prominent festival attraction is a stereotypical miniature Switzerland erected by the Swiss tourist board at Manhattan's main railway station, Grand Central Terminal.

There are model trains, a chocolate shop, alphorn players and even a real life Heidi.

It is an unabashed celebration of Swiss clichés.

A survey of New Yorkers stopping for a closer look said the presence of the Swiss event was a positive sign that despite events, life goes on in the city.

But unfortunately for Switzerland, there has been a significant drop in the number of people passing through the station since the outbreak of war, with many trying to avoid public places or spend as little time as possible in them.

Public anxiety

The head of the Swiss tourist board in New York, Urs Eberhard, says the number of people visiting the Swiss exhibition at the station is down to 5,000 a day, from a pre-war average of 8,000.

A large number of New York State troopers and National Guard soldiers have been deployed at Grand Central to reinforce an already strong police presence.

It is uncertain whether the rifle-carrying soldiers equipped with gas masks are a reassuring presence to commuters or have merely added to their anxiety.

Message of peace

As an executive member of the swisspeaks committee, Eberhard says the festival could be altered or cancelled at a moments notice if events in Iraq or New York dictate.

But he said organisers had not come under pressure from the Swiss government to scrap the show, in a bid to express its opposition to the war.

Eberhard is at pains to emphasise the non-political nature of the event.

"We don't want to frighten New Yorkers with a Switzerland they're not familiar with," he said.

"Based on our experience, they will inevitably be confronted with and enjoy discovering new aspects about the country when they come as tourists."

He adds there is a message of peace underlying the swisspeaks festival.

"Now is an important time to educate people that different cultures can live together harmoniously," he said.

"And there is one country in the middle of Europe that remains united despite its linguistic and cultural differences."

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in New York

Key facts

The swisspeaks festival promotes business ties and Swiss arts, culture and tourism.
Over 100 events are being staged across New York as part of the festival.
swisspeaks runs until the end of April.

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