Face-Veil Ban Potential Next Headache for Beleaguered Swiss Tourism

  • Ticino voters approved ban on face-hiding clothing in 2013
  • Swiss hotels already facing headwinds due to strong franc

A proposal to prohibit face-covering veils could become another setback for Swiss hoteliers already contending with an overvalued currency.

The strength of the franc against the euro has forced the country’s tourism industry to look to China and the Middle East instead of its traditional visitors from Europe. Making it illegal to cover one’s face in public, as voters in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino decided two years ago, would make it tougher for the sector to attract the big spending Gulf visitors it needs to offset a decline in guests from countries such as Germany, its industry chief said.

“Arab countries are an increasingly important market for us,” said Andreas Zuellig, president of the Hotellerie Suisse association. A ban “doesn’t really enhance our image of hospitality,” he said.

QuickTake Switzerland's Direct Democracy

In Switzerland, the number of overnight stays by guests from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates almost doubled to 725,000 between 2011 and 2014.

Ticino, the southernmost canton, followed France in banning covering one’s face in public. Last month, Walter Wobmann, a lawmaker from the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party that in 2009 successfully pushed through a national referendum banning construction of mosque minarets, said he would start collecting signatures for similar a measure, arguing that “no free person covers his face.”

In France, women in veils with their face covered risk a fine of 150 euros ($171). While Ticino still is working on a law to implement the referendum, a committee of parliamentarians in Switzerland’s lower house earlier this year voted for a comparable national rule, which would apply not only to Muslim women but also to soccer hooligans and demonstrators, according to Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

Popular initiatives are a key feature of Switzerland’s direct democracy, and 100,000 valid signatures are needed to trigger a national vote. Recent plebiscites -- including one limiting construction of vacation homes and another to restrict immigration from the neighboring European Union, which local businesses say is essential for obtaining enough skilled workers -- are now threatening to the country’s image and economy, Zuellig said.

“It is a dangerous development for tourism in Switzerland,” he said.

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