The first time Egyptian real estate mogul Samih Sawiris took a helicopter ride over the sleepy Swiss ski village of Andermatt, 14 years ago, he was struck by its remote wildness. The resort was only a 90-minute drive from Zurich, yet it felt like a secret hidden in the mountains of Uri, arguably the rugged country’s least discovered canton.
What the silver-haired chairman of Orascom Development Holding AG must have also seen was a blank slate. The appeal of European ski resorts, unlike that of their purpose-built American counterparts, is their sense of history. Think skiing into farming villages steeped in tradition, where the slopes and hotels and restaurants have been attracting winter tourists for—in some cases—well over a century.
Andermatt offered exactly the opposite. This was a resort that, after two boom-and-bust cycles, felt virtually empty, a veritable ghost town notched high up in a secluded pocket of the Alps. History hadn’t been kind to the valley. First the Gotthard Tunnel rerouted the railway tourists who’d once stopped here during the belle epoque. Then the Swiss military, who’d made Andermatt a big base of operations, pulled out in the 1990s, leaving the resort a husk of its former self. All that remained was a picturesque main street flanked by timber chalets and old hotels and a few antiquated lifts ferrying skiers to the tops of the towering mountains that encircle the town. No-frills free-riders came for the plentiful powder and off-piste faces lining the Gemsstock, the highest lift-serviced peak in the area, but they didn’t do much for the local economy when it came to spending money in town.
To Sawiris—whose holdings include El Gouna, an Egyptian resort town along the Red Sea with some 20,000 residents—the underdeveloped resort’s lack of infrastructure marked its appeal.
“Mr. Sawiris doesn’t only create tourism destinations, he creates towns,” says Stefan Kern, a spokesman for Andermatt Swiss Alps AG, the company Sawiris founded to transform Andermatt from a down-on-its-luck Alpine hamlet into a destination resort capable of rivalling Zermatt, St. Moritz, and Verbier.
In 2007, Sawiris proposed an audacious three-pronged resuscitation plan, one that would see more than $1 billion go toward an opulent luxury hotel and 18-hole Scottish style golf course, a revamped and expanded ski area, and an ambitious development of holiday apartments and private chalets. To succeed at that third component—the one most critical to his bottom line—Sawiris had to find a way around a Swiss law that restricted foreigners from purchasing second homes. He did just that, getting the government to grant Andermatt an exemption as a special economic development zone. Once the town voted in favor of his plan, almost unanimously, Sawiris was off and running.
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