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Swiss Resort Won't Miss Its Famous Guests

Europe: New York will host World Economic Forum in 2002. Locals in Davos see a reprieve, but some fear move will also boost opposition to event.

November 08, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAVOS, Switzerland — Once an obscure Alpine health spa where the rich and tubercular took the waters, Davos has been transformed into the winter playground of the powerful in its 31 years as host of the World Economic Forum--and into an angry front line in the war over globalization.

So when local residents and merchants heard the news Wednesday that the elite annual circus starring world leaders and titans of industry is moving to New York for 2002 as a gesture of capitalist solidarity with the terror-stricken city, they had this to say about their departing glory: "Good riddance!"

Farewell to the barricades and bodyguards that in recent years kept customers away from the bakeries and candy stores and pizzerias that are the economic backbone of this year-round resort.

So long to the recurring battles over who should pay for the extra security, insurance and cleanup after the five-day summit that straddles two prime winter vacation weeks, leaving the town empty on either end of the long weekend.

Finally, a reprieve from the tedious taping and boarding up of storefront windows to shield them from violent demonstrators drawn to this mountain hamlet to denounce its secrecy, its fawning over the famous and its self-promotion as the ultimate global village.

"It's no problem for us if they leave. It will be a relief. We get no benefits from this fanfare," said Janet Rudolf, who runs a gourmet chocolate shop on Davos' meandering main street. "These five days are dead time for us. With all the security and police checks, no one walks around the town anymore. I didn't even open during the summit last year."

The decision to stage "Davos in New York" for the Jan. 31-Feb. 4 summit, announced in Geneva by the forum administration and in New York, is being cast as a one-time exception to an annual ritual elevating tiny Switzerland's international profile.

But even its most ardent backers--such as managing director Ernst Wyrsch of the five-star Steigenberger Belvedere Hotel, which earns 20% of its annual revenue during the forum--acknowledge fears that the conference's many opponents might gain momentum during the 2002 absence.

"As a one-time decision, it's really not a problem to hold the forum in New York, although I think it will be hard to capture the spirit of Davos in a big city," Wyrsch said, noting that the dearth of spacious accommodations in Davos forces CEOs, prominent entertainers, heads of state and opinion-makers to hunker down in close confines, fostering informal debate and reflection.

Wyrsch is more worried about the departure fanning the flames of the anti-forum movement, which has gained strength apace with the growth of the event. At the last forum early this year, the 1,000 delegates were accompanied by personal security guards, advisors and media consultants. That's not counting the 600 forum staff and 300 reporters--and the estimated 1,000 protesters.

"I still get the occasional fare who wants to be driven to Zurich airport, and that brings in good money," said taxi driver Sylvia Kratinger. "But the forum has gotten so big that everyone has to be moved around in buses or motorcades. It's not a big deal for me if it doesn't happen."

Annegret Meier, who runs a stationery business in the center of this resort that is home to 13,000 year-round residents, says that the forum used to be a boon for sales but that conferees seem to do less shopping with each passing year.

"I think most Davos people are happy that the forum has been called off. It's a very nerve-racking time with all the security and the anti-globalization demonstrators," she said. "There are a lot of people who think Davos would be more enjoyable without all this distraction."

At the town's sole McDonald's restaurant, where anti-forum demonstrators smashed windows after breaking through police lines during the 2000 summit, a worker acknowledges that it would be no big loss if the global movers and shakers go elsewhere. "They don't buy a lot of burgers anyway," said the employee, who declined to give his name.

Promoters of the forum, where the likes of Bill Gates and Nelson Mandela rub elbows before the world's TV cameras, express alarm at their likely losses--but also understanding for the symbolic change in venue.

That posture of generosity, however, masks a strengthening movement among the Swiss hosts to deport the annual forum that has outgrown this small resort.

"We're one of the region's biggest resorts, so we will survive it. We have to. The main problem is the short notice. The forum was supposed to begin in two months, and all the hotels have been booked out since last year's summit," said Michael Caflisch, marketing manager of Davos Tourism, the resort's association of hostelries.

Like other backers, he casts the 2002 exodus as a laudable show of support for New York, where tourism is suffering its worst decline in decades.

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