Don't be fooled by Switzerland's cookie-cutter folklore, its photogenic villages, and an image that its tourist officials widely promote -- that of a well-oiled machine ticking efficiently from within the safety of an alpine landscape. The changes that the country has experienced lately have been as painful as anything since World War II, and have shattered long-cherished myths that were zealously taught to Swiss schoolchildren for years.
Ever since Switzerland horded millions of dollars in Nazi gold, it has been known as a bastion of banks secretly luring wealthy evaders, actually tax cheats, who wanted to stash away their gold beyond the reach of tax authorities in their individual countries, including Britain and the United States.
But a deal struck in 2009 between the United States and Switzerland changed all that. Very reluctantly, Switzerland has agreed to provide the names attached to nearly 5,000 secret accounts held by Americans at the Swiss bank giant UBS.
As the ensuing years have passed, Switzerland is gradually moving out of the tax refuge business. It was estimated that a third of the multi-trillion-dollar market in private wealth is controlled by Switzerland.
Don't think the country willingly turned over its long-kept banking secrets. UBS was trapped by offering to help Americans hide their money, for which it was forced to pay $780 million in fines and restitution.
In all, the United States estimates that nearly $18 billion was -- or is -- held by Switzerland in tax-evading accounts.
The agreements are not perfect, and there have been threats and counter-threats on both sides. Each account holder can still appeal the decision to a Swiss court before the names are handed over to American authorities.
On other fronts, Switzerland was not only a great keeper of bank secrets, but also a bastion of tolerance. However, that appears to be changing in the face of the widespread Islamic immigration. In 2009, tensions reached the point whereby a referendum drawn up by the far right, although opposed by the government, passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters.
Since the ban gained a majority in the cantons, it is now being added as a bylaw to the Swiss Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. The construction of minarets or mosques has drawn the greatest fire from the far right.
The justice minister of Switzerland, Eveline Widmer-Schumpf, claimed that the referendum "reflects fear among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies."
It is estimated that there are some 400,000 Arabs living in Switzerland, a country with a population of some 7.5 million people.
The cultural conflict is far from over. The message is clear to many immigrants coming into Switzerland. The welcome mat is not out.
On a more positive development, Swiss women for the first time captured most of the seats in the country's seven-member executive branch of government in fall 2010. This move brushed aside Switzerland's history as one of Europe's last nations to grant women full suffrage. "We've reached the goal after a century-long struggle," said Ruth Dreifuss, who in 1999 served as the country's first female president. Swiss women did not gain the right to vote or to run in national elections until as late as 1971.
This emergence of female politicians still doesn't set well with some Swiss men. Rene Kuhn organized an anti-feminism meeting in October 2010. He told the press, "We all know that when lots of women work together there can be more problems."
Although this debate, and others, over the Swiss role in modern history is likely to continue long past the millennium, there is other trouble in paradise.
To the rest of the world, Switzerland is perceived as a very rich country -- and it is. The magic economy has brought watch-making, chocolate-making, civil engineering, and tourism to high levels of accomplishments. But the high value of the cherished Swiss franc has cut deeply into the profitability of the country's exports and into its tourism.
Many Swiss citizens don't want to join the European Union, even though the country's present nonmember status is severely affecting the Swiss economy. As the E.U. grows bigger, more and more markets become expensive for Swiss products, such as chocolate. An example occurred when Sweden, Austria, and Finland joined the E.U.; several Swiss exports were suddenly tagged with tariff barriers in those heretofore lucrative markets.
Trade protections from the E.U. aren't the only things blocking Swiss exports. The cruelly high value of the Swiss franc continues to threaten exports as well. Swiss goods, even if they weren't before, have suddenly become luxury items, and correspondingly expensive.
Even Swiss manufacturers are deserting their own country and going elsewhere where labor is cheaper and taxes are lower. For example, that Swiss chocolate bar you're eating might have actually been made in Spain or Greece.
Though warned that failure to stay out of the European Union would mean trouble for their economy, Swiss voters in 1992 narrowly chose to remain outside the free-trade zone. As a result of that highly contested vote, the E.U. continues to impose the same trade barriers and protections against Switzerland that it does against Japan and the United States.
As an industrious people, the Swiss are taking steps to stay "lean and mean" with their manufacturing. For example, the august Swiss Parliament voted in 1995 to allow chocolate producers to use vegetable oils rather than cocoa butter in chocolate bars. In some parts of Switzerland, this provoked a massive outcry. Chocolate makers have slimmed down their workforces, becoming more mechanized and needing fewer workers who traditionally earn extremely high wages when stacked up against much of the Western world.
Discontented rumblings and differing opinions have been heard from various linguistic factions within Switzerland as well. The French-speaking section tends to be more cosmopolitan, more liberal, and more socialist than voters in the German-speaking hamlets of the country's staunchly conservative center. (Residents of Italian-speaking Switzerland are, surprisingly enough, viewed as only a bit less conservative than their German-speaking compatriots, and in some cases, much less liberal than their French-speaking counterparts.) Interestingly, Zurich has been viewed as more fiscally stable and growth oriented than Geneva, reversing a trend. As for the European Union, Swiss women, young voters, and the country's French-speaking western tier tend to favor membership, Zurich remains divided, and the German-speaking hamlets of the country's center overwhelmingly are steadfastly opposed.
Switzerland remains one of the safest countries in the world to visit, but even its image of peace and tranquillity is being shattered by "tourist criminals." Some of the most publicized of these have involved refugees from the traumatized Balkans and what used to be Yugoslavia. Many are people entering Switzerland with 3-month tourist visas who, with cameras, a bagful of Swiss handicrafts, and, in some cases, a guidebook in hand, have burglarized houses or mugged passersby in small towns that until recently had never experienced even a whiff of crime. Ironically, the vocabulary used by the Swiss to describe this unheard-of phenomenon often evokes lawless Chicago-style 1920s gangs from the era of Al Capone.
In spite of gnawing problems, there's a lot to be proud of in Switzerland today. A proposal to increase the price of a university education in Switzerland was voted down by an assembly of town councils, a fact that makes a college degree for their children a distinct possibility for most Swiss families even today.
The country continues its impressive advances in technical training for high-skilled engineers and financiers, but artists still have a stony road to travel in their struggle to survive. Despite that, growing communities of counterculture photographers, painters, writers, and sculptors, as well as large numbers of gay people, continue to congregate in the inner cores of such cities as Zurich, Basel, and Geneva.
As mirrored in urban centers throughout the rest of Europe, victims of AIDS and other diseases, as well as heroin addicts, continue to find greater options in the country's large cities than in small towns, and their migration from small towns toward Switzerland's large cities continues. Although Switzerland is medically very advanced in the technology of providing substitutes (such as methadone) for heroin to deeply entrenched addicts, the use of such legalized, carefully controlled substitutes remains a hotly contested issue during virtually every election.
What most Swiss finally admit is that they've entered the real world whether they like it or not, and can never be viewed again as heirs to a nation of cuckoo clocks, contented cud-chewing cows, and Heidi's great-uncle.
A Loose Confederation of Cantons
Switzerland is a confederation of 3,029 communes, each largely responsible for its own public affairs, including school systems, taxation, road construction, water supply, and town planning. The international sign CH, found on Swiss motor vehicles, stands for Confoederatio Helvetica (Swiss Confederation). Over the centuries, neighboring communes have bonded together in a confederation of 23 cantons, each with its own constitution, laws, and government. They have surrendered only certain aspects of their authority to the Federal Parliament, such as foreign policy, national defense, and general economic policy.
The Federal Parliament of Switzerland consists of a 200-member National Council, elected by the people, and a 46-member Council of States, in which each canton has two representatives. The two chambers constitute Switzerland's legislative authority. The executive body, the Federal Council, is composed of seven members, who make decisions jointly, although each councilor is responsible for a different department. The president of the Federal Council, who serves a 1-year term, leads the Confederation as primus inter pares (first among equals).
All Swiss citizens, in general, become eligible to vote on federal matters at the age of 20. Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1971 that Swiss women were granted the right to vote.
Despite its neutrality, Switzerland has compulsory military service. The army, however, is devoted solely to the defense of the homeland. Swiss soldiers are always ready to fight -- they keep military gear at home, including a gas mask, rifle, and ammunition. Annual shooting practice is mandatory.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.