The Swiss mountain area, which covers more than half of the country’s surface area, has been struggling with weak economic growth and internal migration. In federal economic rankings, mountainous cantons regularly occupy the bottom spots. Additionally, the strong Swiss Franc and the second-home initiative negatively affect economic prospects in the Alps and the Jura mountain range. However, topography is not always a hurdle to economic development. The economic development of mountain areas can be promoted using the appropriate framework. Avenir Suisse and the publication’s author Daniel Müller-Jentsch suggest a range of market-liberal reforms and policy options to strengthen existing and new sources of economic value:

  • The second home initiative led to a sharp decline in new building constructions in the mountain areas. The large pool of 350 000 to 400 000 second homes offers opportunities for new economic growth. Innovative rental models provide the tourism industry with sustainable use of the accommodation and new business models for the renovation of the existing properties, adding value to the regional construction industries.
  • The greatest potential comes from second-home (holiday) owners. Their economic capacity, knowledge and commitment to the mountain communities must be maximised. Mountain communities and cantons must work together as partners, e.g. on political participation rights or through strategic stakeholder relationships as shown by alumni organisations at universities.
  • Innovation is the key for job-creation, investments and tax breaks. There are multiple promising regional innovation clusters in local industry and education. Traditional mountain industries are also great economic opportunities.
  • Valleys are the dominant landscape of mountain regions. It is in the valleys where the economic potential lies. For the first time, the current study documents and analyses the economic trends in mountain communities. Between 2000 and 2015, there were no less than 43 valley fusions in Switzerland with an average of 5.5 participating municipalities.
  • Remote areas are often particularly affected by structural change. “Potentially Poor Areas” offer exciting economic opportunities through digitisation (e.g., online distribution of regional products), a pragmatic design of public service
    s or regional parks with eco-friendly tourism. Where economic decline cannot be stopped, an “orderly retreat” is required.
  • A central economic aspect of mountain regions is the new specialisation in tourism. The excessive prices for agricultural products bring obvious competitive disadvantages for the hospitality industry. Border customs of agricultural products need to be dismantled to the advantage of the mountain areas. A stronger regional identity, product bundling and the merger of regional marketing organisations are also some of the potential policies discussed in the study.

Many previous attempts to implement structural change in the mountain areas fell short of delivering satisfactory results. Prestigious infrastructure projects redirected considerable tax revenues to unproductive areas. The political taboo of declining economic opportunities hinders the development of appropriate countermeasures, and economic subsidies for unproductive economic areas are ineffective.

2016_ad_Berggebiete_Kap-01_Abb-03_DEIn view of the current economic challenges, a new debate on the mountain region is needed in Switzerland. The Confederation should develop its relatively vague mountain region policies along strategic and operational objectives. Representatives of the mountain regions, such as the Government Conference for Mountain Cantons (RKGK: Regierungskonferenz der Gebirgskantone), should focus more on questions of structural economic change. In the end, however, it is the mountain communities, their inhabitants and entrepreneurs, who will drive the economic renewal.