There are only a handful of commodities we use or buy on a daily basis that display homage to their nationality of origin. The hamburger, the Danish, the French fry and the Swiss cheese, just to name a few. For a relatively small nation, nestled in the heart of Eastern Europe, Switzerland has exceptional global notoriety thanks to its exportation of the “Swiss” label, an awesome marketing strategy that extends to the region’s chocolates and legendary Swiss knives.
However, Switzerland owes much of the unique cultural identity to being the crossroads of Europe and a safe haven during wartime for centuries. During Medieval times, the Swiss had one of the safest, if not only, routes through the Alps connecting England and Rome. Many pilgrims, peasants and kings passed through ancient Switzerland, and all of them left their mark on the countries hillsides.
When we want to talk about a Swiss identity based on exports like chocolate and cutlery, we forgot that the culture of a place, is sometimes itself a commodity. It is important to remember that sometimes and export doesn’t have to leave the country at all to earn some capital. Today, tour guides and international adventurers are discovering the sort of identity you can only experience first hand by revisiting the hills and valleys of Switzerland.
Some countries are calling this new enterprise eco-tourism, because it takes advantage of the natural ecosystem to earn tourist dollars. Though counter-intuitive, some nations have found that the best way to maintain their natural beauty is to let tourists trample through a small part of the whole. There seems to be very little alternative to keeping interest in the great outdoors high enough to make any headway with preservation.
Earlier in 2012, when I traveled to Costa Rica, which is renowned for its efforts to preserve its rain forest and the diverse biology found there, eco-tourism had become one the country’s most profitable exports. More importantly, the practice of exploiting some of the most beautiful and delicate parts of the ecosystem to foreigners was also dumping massive amounts of cash into the conservation efforts. And it doesn’t just extend to zip-lining through some big trees.
This represents an “evolution in tourism” according to Veronique Kanel for Switzerland Tourism. And the Swiss are starting to take full advantage of the unspoiled beauty of their countryside, beyond just the good looks. With sustainability in mind, the Swiss government began revitalizing hiking trails and historical pathways and landmarks in 1988. Since then, the Cultural Routes of Switzerland project has walked the nearly 60,000 kilometers of hiking, foot and mule paths to reinforce and advertise the safety of the outdoor experience found only in the Swiss Alps.
Although much care is being taken to preserve the new revenue stream from corporate ravaging, in order to transport some 2,000 people a month, partnerships have been made with companies like Swiss Post, a national package company similar to UPS. While there is no concern yet over the tourism industry being hijacked for commercial gain, there are some incredible economic payoffs.
Many routes have been transformed by the surge of tourist interest, and are now offered as packages from travel agents that cover everything from multiple hotel bookings to outfitting your crew for their trek. The Via Spluga, a most popular route starting in the South of Switzerland and crossing the Alps into Italy at the Splügen Pass, has had a turnover of about 1 million francs every year since its reopening in 2000.
With some of the most breathtaking vistas coupled with the finest cuisine and hospitality ranging from bunked hostel beds to pristine room service, the Swiss may find themselves the new outdoor adventure capital of Europe. As much a part of the Swiss identity as cheese or neutrality, the Alpine trails in Switzerland offer a unique way to experience the true roots of their culture.