Swiss Up in the Air On Lakeside Flights

Vote to pit waterfowl against tourism

The hills are alive with the sound of - seaplanes? They will be if one local entrepreneurial airplane pilot gets his way.

These buzzing light planes that land on water are popular in other parts of Europe and were common here before World War II. Now Olivier Depraz, director of Air Lemanic, wants to help boost Switzerland's stagnating tourist industry by way of seaplanes on Lake Geneva. That idea isn't music to the ears of environmentalists, who have pushed forward a nationwide referendum to ban the planes. A vote is pending later this year.

Switzerland's majestic mountains and limpid lakes make it an attractive tourist destination. But in the past few years, Switzerland's tourism revenues have dropped by roughly 15 percent: In 1993, the country earned 2.4 billion francs ($1.9 billion), while in 1995 the country earned just under 2 billion francs ($1.6 billion), according to the latest government statistics.

The decline comes partly because Switzerland is a pricey place: A cup of coffee costs an average of 2.60 francs ($2) and a small pizza about 18 francs ($14). The country's image needs a boost, say many regional tourism directors.

"Tourism here needs to be revitalized," says Jean-Charles Kollros, president of tourism in Villeneuve. "We can't become [environmental] fanatics and allow [our country] to become a museum."

While Mr. Depraz's fight to fly may be a local affair, it is emblematic of the nation's tension between protecting the environment and business.

Depraz wants to construct two aqua-ports off the shoreline of Montreux and Lausanne. While he has had the necessary permits to begin construction since 1992, his work has been blocked by environmentalists. Depraz can't begin construction until the referendum is settled. Two well-known environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Fondation Helvetia Nostra in Geneva, have joined forces and collected the 150,000 signatures necessary for the referendum.

"All of Switzerland will vote on this one airplane," Depraz complains. It's crazy.''

Environmentalists, however, view the seaplane facility as one more blow to the environment.

SWITZERLAND has a high population density: 444 people per square mile. The United States only has about 72 people per square mile. This dense population means Switzerland must be careful about its resources, says Franz Weber, president of Fondation Helvetia Nostra, who maintains that the planes would harm wildlife and ruin the country's landscape through noise and pollution.

"We have magnificent landscapes here and to put a plane like that on the lake ... would destroy it all," he says.

Mr. Weber says he fears for the safety of migratory birds who nest or take a rest along the lake's shoreline.

Depraz says he would fly only during the summer tourist season, and never during the breeding and nesting seasons.

Environmentalists aren't satisfied.

"This is a country with a lot of wildlife," says Serge Fernier, president of the WWF chapter in Lausanne. "We need to have restraint." Such restraint was shown last year when Austria and Germany joined with Switzerland to prohibit seaplanes on Lake Constance on their common border.

The planes are popular in many other places, such as Scandinavia, Canada, and Lake Como, Italy, where they are considered environmentally safe. According to the WWF's Como chapter, the seaplanes operating there since 1930 haven't disturbed the birds, flowers, and animals.

None of this convinces Weber. "[You] could put apartments on Mont Blanc," he says. "But just because something is doable doesn't mean you should do it."

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