Switzerland is responding to the growing desire worldwide for sustainable tourism and environmentally friendly holidays, reports Michael Cowton
Imagine a place where no tree is felled, no meadow mown, no animal hunted. A place where no human activity is allowed which is deemed to interfere with nature. Step into Switzerland’s National Park, the biggest conservation area in the country and one of the best-protected natural environments in Europe. Located in the very east of Switzerland in the Canton Graubünden, the park was founded in 1914 and today remains a stunning sanctuary for all manner of flora and fauna.
You might imagine that the whole of Switzerland is nature’s playground and therefore needs protection. Well, the federal authorities have not been idle on that one. They have been busy gathering data on regional initiatives to create a series of nature parks, to be supported and overseen by the respective cantons. The aim is to protect and enhance exceptional habitats and particularly attractive landscapes, to encourage tourism and sustainable regional development, and to allow the public to experience nature.
A park project can apply to the Federal Government via the canton to establish a park. Once all pre-requisites are satisfied, the project receives the label ‘Candidate’ from, and financial support for, the establishment phase. Any decision-making on applications lays with the Federal Office for the Environment. The first areas to be labelled ‘Park of National Importance’ include the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Entlebuch, Thal in the Canton of Solithurn, and the Wilderness Park Zurich/Sihlwald.
The beauty of Thal
Thal – simply meaning ‘valley’ – is one of the most beautiful and unique regions of Switzerland, its location between Zurich, Berne and Basel making it the country’s most central nature reserve. The route to the reserve leads through the compact township of Klus in the Balsthal. From here, an expansive world of nature unfolds with the gentle rolling hills of the Jura. Fortress ruins attest to its importance as a pack route. Today, transit traffic rolls beyond the Jura mountain ranges, and not fortresses, but picturesque farms occupy the best vantage points. A dense network of cycling and hiking trails lead to and from, rather than past these, since several farmsteads run inns that enjoy an outstanding reputation.
Promoting green tourism
Between the Alpine limestone layers of the Bernese Alps and the granite reliefs of the Valais Alps, the River Rhone stretches its arms across Pfyn-Finges, one of the biggest pine groves in Europe. Sheltered by towering peaks above 4000 metres, this is one of the driest regions of Switzerland, with only 550mm annual precipitation. They say the suns shines here for 363 days a year. The other two days are put aside to wash and clean the mountains. Little wonder, then, that the partners of Pfyn-Finges began making plans to create a park to help promote green tourism, consistent with their belief in long-term, environmentally friendly development.
Aside from the natural and scenic treasures which have made Pfyn-Finges such an area of interest, there are also sufficient cultural and historic treasures to satisfy the curiosity of those more interested in the human side of things. Indeed, the Pfyn-Finges region contains many vestiges of the past. Terraced vineyards, castles, museums and old towns offer interesting excursions. There is an abundance of contemporary culture, with festivals, markets, concerts, plays and exhibitions. Visitors can also enjoy a mix of outdoor activities, from weekly guided outings to hikes lasting two days or more, on different themes related to plants and animals.
Valley of hidden treasure
It was the smugglers who first came to the Binn Valley, making use of the old mule trail on their way to Italy. Next came the rock crystal prospectors. Finally, it was the turn of the visitor, with the traditional Hotel Ofenhorn dating from the pioneering age of Alpine tourism bearing testament to this. Today, this Valais side valley is primarily recognised for its culture in the music village of Ernen, the unexpected tulips in Grengiols, and its superb cuisine served up in several mountain restaurants. In fact, the old villages and hamlets are so well preserved that they are regarded as places of national and local interest. Mühlebach boasts the oldest village centre with wooden houses in Switzerland. Binn was presented with the Local Heritage Protection Prize in 1992. And the old village centre of Grengiols is of national significance.
There is little wonder that the Binn Valley is known as the ‘valley of hidden treasure’, for no other region in the Alps is so rich in minerals. It is also known for its large number of rare plant species. Valis Stock (Matthiola valesiaca), and Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) both grow in the Twingi Gorge. In summer, you come across countless Alpine flowers. A rare species of tulip, Tulipa grengiolensis, flowers on a hill in the village of Grengiols during the second half of May. This species is endemic to this village, and is not found anywhere else in the world.
The beauty behind the establishment of Switzerland’s nature parks is that there is little evidence of sustainable tourism infrastructure in place, with authentic agricultural and small industrial development, and with few or no plans for change. However, surrounded by some of the most beautiful and splendid Alpine nature it is possible to find, visitors can look forward to untouched nature and excellent accommodation.
Many areas of the country, of course, were practising sustainability long before the word came into vogue, resisting the building of mountain trains, cable cars and holiday apartments. Thank goodness they did. For nature is, and hopefully will forever remain, the real showcase, and therefore wealth, of Switzerland.
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