Swiss tourist regions outvoted in holiday homes upset
Swiss narrowly back a cap on second homes in every community.
SION - High in the Swiss alpine village of Salins, plans are afoot to build a new hotel and residence complex catering to the hordes of skiers who flock to the resort each season.
Developer Jean-Marie Fournier can breath a sigh of relief: he submitted the development proposal before a March 11 vote which sent shockwaves across the country.
The initiative was the mastermind of an 84-year-old called Franz Weber who has described it as a watershed in the country's environment policy.
It saw the Swiss narrowly back a cap on second homes in every community, sparking concern in the construction, property and tourism sectors.
The ballot, approved by 50.4 percent of voters, will limit the number of second homes to only 20 percent in any one area.
What this means is that no further permission will be given to build second homes in towns and villages where the 20 percent mark has already been reached.
The people of the canton of Valais, where Salins is located, are assessing their options ahead of the implementation of the new law in 2013, though some legal experts think it will more likely come into force the following year.
"The revolt is under way," said Fournier, who is also the owner of the regional newspaper, Le Nouvelliste.
"A committee has been put together," he told AFP.
The local man's firm, VIP, plans to build a new cable car station at the foot of the resort as well as several residential blocks and hotels with a total of about 1,500 beds.
They will serve the needs of the thousands of Europeans -- mainly Belgians and Dutch -- who come to enjoy the ski season each winter, says Fournier.
The problem is that out of season the buildings are more often than not left empty, creating a desolate picture.
In the Crans-Montana resort, also in the Valais canton, chalet blocks five to ten storeys high extend for as far as the eye can see.
Come spring and their shutters remain closed barring a few exceptions.
Swiss Environment Minister Doris Leuthard said the government shared the voters' concerns about the increasing number of empty holiday homes off-season and the difficulties locals face in holiday resorts to get housing.
"We need a more careful use of our territory as well as a better occupancy rate of second homes," she said.
Owing to the confusion surrounding the terms of the proposed law, Swiss authorities have had to create a working group tasked with responding to a mountain of questions, not least the most obvious: what is classed as a second home?
But while many in property and tourism sectors fear the consequences of the new law, which a conference of seven mountain cantons said "jeopardises the economic development of the mountain regions", some are acting swiftly to capitalise on the present muddle.
For Angela Turnbull from the real estate agency Angela Immobilier, acquiring a property in Crans-Montana "has never been so attractive."
The new law "will certainly mean that few or even no new-builds whatsoever will see the light of day in the years to come," she says.
And by logic of supply and demand, this will likely lead to an jump in value of second homes.
"Switzerland is becoming the hottest property owners' club in the world," said Turnbull, who recommends that investors, and wealthy foreigners in particular, should act fast.
Marcel Maurer, mayor of the Valais capital Sion, voiced his discontent.
"A 20 percent quota is no way to carry out town planning," he says, adding: "We don't need lessons," he said.
Maurer however remains optimistic.
"There is a culture (of tourism) that is in the process of changing. The Valais people have understood that."
And as his town prepares to merge with Salins next year, Maurer promises that he will keep a close watch on Fournier's hotel development.
"We will do something exemplary," he says reassuringly.
In the meantime, local finance and tourism officials are mulling the creation of a property fund which would finance "tourism residences" for rental.
How this will fit in with the new law remains to be seen.