Egyptian billionaire-resurrected skiing paradise

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 10, 2019.

The view from the top of the ski lift on the Gemsstock. Photos by Bloomberg

The Chedi’s main restaurant.

The town nestled in the Urseren valley along branches of the Reuss river.

The cozy interior of Restaurant Zur Sonne.

The new cable car going over Gummel and Pastakeller restaurants at Gemsstock Mittelstation.

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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, 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 had not been kind to the valley. Firstly, the Gotthard Tunnel rerouted the railway tourists who had once stopped here during the belle epoque. Then the Swiss military, who had 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, 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 did not do much for the local economy when it came to spending money in town.

To Sawiris, the underdeveloped resort’s lack of infrastructure marked its appeal.

“Sawiris doesn’t only create tourism destinations; he creates towns,” said 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 US$1 billion go towards an opulent luxury hotel and 18-hole Scottish-style golf course, a revamped and expanded ski area, as well as an ambitious development of holiday apartments and private chalets. To succeed at that third component, 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 favour of his plan, almost unanimously, Sawiris was off and running.

Spread out across nine ­peaked-roof chalets, the five-star 169-room Chedi opened its doors in 2013 and now forms the heart of the new Andermatt. The hotel has become a destination in and of itself for moneyed ­travellers who want to unplug amid blissed-out luxury in the seclusion of the Swiss Alps. During a visit in early April, as the snow still dumped outside, an international array of guests milled about the sleek black-stone and timber lobby, ate farm-fresh breakfast in the 250-­person dining room besides an open kitchen and floated downstairs to spa appointments. There is a 6,000-­bottle wine cellar, plus a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant, and, for those who can afford further seclusion, the two-floor Furka suite which comes replete with a private spa and rents for US$15,000 (RM63,000) a night.

Despite its sheer size and over-the-top amenities, the Chedi does not dominate Andermatt. Nor does Sawiris’s residential development on the north side of town, Andermatt Reuss, home to the recently opened four-star Radisson Blu hotel, a 650-seat classical music concert hall and apartment buildings surrounding a central piazza. (80% of finished apartments have already been sold.) Instead, as you drive up the circuitous bends and through a crack in the mountains and into town, you are greeted by the broad valley’s open snowfields, a few remaining military barracks, perhaps a red train trundling along on your right-hand side, and serrated peaks in every direction.

“Some people driving into the village don’t even realise the Chedi is there,” said Mari Russi, a co-owner of Art 87 Andermatt, a contemporary gallery located just off the cobblestones of Gotthardstrasse. The hotel’s entrance “is very discreet. There’s no big sign — you really have to look for it”.

Russi hails from Sweden, but it was her Swiss husband Bernhard Russi who introduced her to his hometown more than 30 years ago. A lot has changed since then, but like most locals, she takes an all-ships-rise attitude towards Sawiris’s development. Now, her clients are the type of people who would not bat an eye at the US$50,000 price tags of her gallery’s most expensive pieces.

“Everyone is happy the Chedi is here,” said Louie Gougouth, an assistant manager of Hotel Sonne, a 150-year-old ­family-owned institution that remains perhaps the most picturesque building in town. Originally from Morocco, Gougouth came to Switzerland to study in a hotel school and wound up in Andermatt due to a job offer at a now-­defunct hotel. He stayed because of the clean air, the unspoiled mountains and the people who greeted him on the street every morning.

In April, the atmospheric wood-­panelled dining room in the 20-room Sonne was still busy, as it had been all-season, with a mix of German and British families huddled around piping hotpots of fondue. “In the beginning, it was just the military,” Gougouth said, reflecting on his first years in Andermatt. “We were just seeing green, green, green because of the uniforms. But now, we see people from around the world, even celebrities. Singers from the US. Golf players. This year, we have seen a 50% growth over last year,” he said.

Making good on his plan to expand the ski area, Sawiris pumped US$140 million into ­on-mountain infrastructure in only three years. Last season, a gleaming eight-person gondola replaced a couple of old chairs; it now whisks skiers to the top of the Gutsch peak, from which they can ski a network of gentle and intermediate slopes before taking another new 10-person gondola into the neighbouring resort of Sedrun in the canton of Graubunden.

The most seasoned of skiers still lap off-piste runs from the Gemsstock’s cable car, but the multigenerational clans who now come to Andermatt make their migration east each morning towards Sedrun, skiing far above the treeline in the high alpine, partaking in that grand, stress-free European ski experience of lazily schussing from village to village.

All told, the interconnected ski area will boast 112 miles (180.25km) of slopes and 33 lifts. That is two lifts more than Vail, Colorado. A further lift connection will open during the 2019 to 2020 winter season, allowing guests to ski all the way to the rolling, family-friendly slopes of Disentis. — Bloomberg