Wealth and woe in Grindelwald, Aletsch

The 19th century hotels did a flourishing trade in the Aletsch region "Bauern, Bergführer, und Hoteliers". Hier + Jetzt

Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland and the villages of the Aletsch region near Brig in canton Valais thrive as popular resorts, but in the 19th century, they took different paths as they developed.

This content was published on August 10, 2001 minutes

Tourists travelled to Grindelwald early in the century to view the sea of glaciers dividing the Bernese Oberland from upper canton Valais.

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks looming over Grindelwald also enthralled them. The best route to climb the peaks though was through the back door from Valais, crossing the Aletsch Glacier.

Inns and guesthouses sprang up to shelter the visitors, first in Grindelwald, as early as 1781, then in the Aletsch region, several decades later.

Singers and beggars

"Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland 1838" describes the impact tourism made on Grindelwald: "Some of the peasants act as guides; the younger females pick up a few batz by singing 'Ranz de Vaches' at the inns, and most of the children are beggars - occupations arising from the influx of strangers into the valley, which has exercised an injurious influence upon its morals and ancient simplicity of manners."

It was a superficial view of the changes tourism was bringing to Grindelwald. But tourism represented an important new source of income, and the locals found ways to maximize its benefits. As in many alpine communities, pastureland was owned by cooperatives (and still is in places like Grindelwald). Extending the same cooperative approach to village affairs helped increase the yield from tourism.

Up until 1820, there were only two tavern licences, which were awarded on a six-year basis to the highest bidder. The licences often changed hands, enabling a wide circle of local families to benefit from the rising tide of visitors.

When the laws were relaxed, families began to rent out rooms in their homes, competing with the hotels.

Grindelwald's residents were able to supplement their farm income with funds derived from tourism. Even today, farmers are among the most important hoteliers and businessmen of the resort, and their cooperatives run some of the hotels, restaurants, and cable car companies.

Hardship in Aletsch

The Aletsch region, however, languished. Its communities suffered, as did many alpine villages in canton Valais, from extreme poverty, with residents eking out an existence from the poor soils and harsh conditions of the steep mountainsides.

For centuries, this hardship had forced people of the Valais to migrate in search of a better life. Paradoxically, the new tourism of the mid-19th century couldn't stem the fresh wave of emigration.

While locals fled, some entrepreneurs profited. The lion's share of wealth from tourism went to people like Alexander Seiler, who were considered "foreign" by the locals because they came from the valley towns.

Seiler, the founder of the family dynasty synonymous with Zermatt on the other side of the canton, bought land from the bankrupt cooperatives and leased it to another "foreign" entrepreneur who built the grand hotel Jungfrau-Eggishorn on the property.

The lavish hotel opened in 1857, and soon attracted the biggest names of the British climbing world. They dined on roast pig, lamb and veal, washed down with the finest imported wine and cognac.

The back door

The wealthy guests were served by low-paid employees, mostly recruited from other parts of the Valais. Few locals were hired or were willing to work as servants, and they were, according to one Swiss historian, "second class guests, neither allowed to step into the hotel or even onto the hotel terrace. They were only permitted entrance through the back door".

The hotelier kept his own livestock, tended to by his own staff, and limited his dependence on the local community to the purchase of milk and potatoes.

Tourism grew. Seiler's wealthy relatives built more hotels to meet the demand. Local families did not share in the wealth, and as their hard times continued, so did migration from the region.

Many men took jobs as hired hands in other parts of Switzerland or bought their own parcels of farmland in distant countries. A significant number worked in hotels that were far from home so their families' pride would not be damaged.

The locals were dealt another blow in the late 19th century when new mountain railways were built across the Alps. They made the climb to Grindelwald but stopped short of the Aletsch.

Residents of the region continued to lead a meagre existence until cable cars rolled out in the 1950s. Then, finally, tourism brought them wealth too.

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