Switzerland's fatal attraction

A boring little country has re-branded itself as the ultimate adventure; a ploy aimed at the youth market, writes Imre Karacs
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The Independent Online
YOU COME across all kinds of people at the Funny Farm, a backpackers' abode in the twilight zone of Interlaken. There is the barman who goes all metaphysical after dark and regales customers with passages out of a book about "infinity", the "vortex" and the "space-time continuum". There are men such as Paul, aged 49, who whips out an ID to prove he is the Ambassador of Vermont, and came to the tranquil Swiss resort in April in order to get over a family bereavement.

"It's so peaceful here," he explains. "There are no drive-by shootings, like in California or Miami." He made that remark, as fate would have it, a day after 21 people were killed in a nearby gorge.

Most of the Funny Farm's guests, however, are in search of a different kind of nirvana. At night-time, they sit under the hostel's canvas, munching hamburgers slapped between two slices of Swiss brown bread, swilling moderate amounts of local beer, a few discreetly puffing on home-made aromatic cigarettes. The talk is of adventure, of journeys of a life-time, tales of mythical cities such as London and Amsterdam that these people from across the pond may never see again.

There is no doubt what the highlight of the trip is for most of them. "I did Venice in half a day," a young American boasts. "That was enough. Gorgeous city." Now Interlaken, that is something else. He has already been here a week.

There is just so much to do. Outside the hostel, where residents pay 25 Swiss francs for a night in the dorm, the rafts are piled high. They have been grounded while the investigation into Tuesday's disaster is completed, and the yellow life-jackets and helmets used for canyoning are gathering dust on the racks. But there is more to Switzerland these days than going down a creek, with or without a paddle.

Adventure World, the company that took 44 tourists canyoning down a stream and lost 17 of them plus four of its own guides, has stopped all activities. The other adventure operators have suspended white-water rafting and canyoning. But just around the corner from the Funny Farm, the operator "Spot on" has other thrills to offer. "This week's special - jump out of a helicopter," a poster in the window urges. Other kicks still available are hang-gliding, para-gliding, ice climbing, bungee jumping and "zorbing" - rolling downhill inside a giant rubber ball.

That is what brought Ray, a 28-year-old office manager from Pittsburgh, to Interlaken. "Friends said this was a cool place to go," he explained. He has "done them all": rafting, mountain-biking, sky-diving, "all that stuff". He has even done bungee jumping, but not properly.

"In the States you do it from a crane, and it's only 80 feet high. Here, you do it from a gondola, and it's 400 feet," Ray said. Like fishermen's tales, the exploits of bungee jumpers tend to inflate with time. The jump over a Swiss lake is "only" 300 feet high, but it will doubtless go up as Ray approaches home after his round trip of Europe. He has spent a week in Paris, two days in Brussels, five days in Amsterdam, and soon he will be heading for Ireland.

Nothing will top the five days in Switzerland. Ray does not look the outdoor type - if he had a girlfriend she might well suggest he shed a stone or two - but now he has something to brag about. "I'm just as scared to do all these things as anyone else," he admitted. "That's why I do them."

The music wafting out of the Funny Farm's loudspeakers can only be described as "groovy", but for one customer it's not groovy enough. "We want Floyd," he shouts. The Pink one, presumably. There are so many echoes of the past, say 20 years ago, but the venue is all wrong. Switzerland was then a country to sleep through on the way to exotic locations in the south. And the only peril awaiting Inter-railers in those days was the crush on the Istanbul express.

Now, as the new generation seeks new thrills, Swiss resorts such as Interlaken are "in". Just south of the town lies Heidi country: sheer cliffs, meadows, the cog-wheel railway, the Jungfrau, the Eiger. The popular image of this landscape is that of gentlemen in tweeds making their way laboriously up the well-marked paths, cafes at the summit and the tinkle of cow-bells. All very civilised.

But there is now another Switzerland, its fame spreading among young travellers but still only slowly reaching the older generation. The Bern police entrusted with the gruesome task of identifying last Tuesday's victims were surprised by how few parents got in touch on the emergency contact number. To most it never occurred that their children might be in danger.

But south of Interlaken - the first Swiss resort to embrace mass tourism many years ago - lie the precipitous streams and potentially lethal waterfalls offering new business opportunities. The activities offered by the various adventure groups attract a mere 2 per cent of the country's visitors. The country's prosperity would hardly be affected if they were shut down.

That is not likely to happen, though, whatever the findings of the inquiry into last week's accident. For the importance of canyoning and other extreme sports go beyond the sums of money they earn. They are an image-booster, helping to re-brand tedious little Switzerland as the ultimate adventure; a ploy aimed at the youth market.

As Interlaken's elegant riverside hotels fade, hostels are opening up at the edge of the town catering for a predominantly Anglo-Saxon clientele which seeks no luxury but still has the purchasing power - thanks to Mom and Pop's credit card - to fork out $100 on a leap into the void. Forget Venice. "See Interlaken and die" could well be the motto of tour operators advertising their fatal attractions on websites adorned with a skull and crossbones.

The marketing strategy is still working. After Tuesday's disaster, the expensive shops and restaurants on the high street continued to throng with middle-aged and older holiday-makers bedecked in jewellery and wearing designer clothes. The denizens of the hostels on the margins found their adrenalin surge in dry activities, descending on the town centre with parachutes.

There was also a new attraction for the sedate type. The pleasure boats continued to ply their trade in the marina where police divers dragged the bottom in search of the missing bodies, much to the pleasure of the snapshot-hunters on board. Switzerland, old and new, met at last.