Andrew Osborn








A nation for every occasion, 14th February 2003 13:32

Multinational companies can rent out the whole of Liechtenstein for corporate events, but Andrew Osborn is not convinced that they would want to

It has no border controls, no airport and even no railway station. Liechtenstein, it seems, does not want to be found.

Its 60 square miles of lush alpine territory are packed with banks offering fiscally advantageous deals to wealthy individuals, but little else.

However, this week it achieved the rarest of feats: it hit the headlines. News that publicity-hungry tourist chiefs had come up with the idea of renting out the entire country to multinationals for conferences and corporate events provided a crumb of colour in an otherwise bleak news agenda.

A day out in Liechtenstein, which is wedged between Switzerland and Austria and has an official population of 33,000 is, however, a bizarre experience.

A train journey lasting an hour and 20 minutes from Zurich, traversing stunning mountain passes and shimmering icy lakes, brings the curious traveller to the nondescript Swiss town of Sargans.

There, a gaggle of buses awaits. Gawky Swiss teenagers throw their snowboards and skis into most of them, while a lone bus bound for Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, attracts much less interest. Its engine idles for precisely five minutes and then it is off, climbing winding mountain roads and passing identikit chalets with neat little snow-covered gardens.

You can tell the people who are headed for Vaduz. They don't talk, and they mind their own business. Many of them also have bulky-looking sports bags stuffed with banknotes, destined for Liechtenstein's discreet banking vaults.

Two American gentlemen are typical. Well-fed and dressed in tweeds, they look as though they used to be movers and shakers in a US boardroom. When I asked them a few banal questions, however, I would never have thought that they were Americans.

"Do you speak English?" I asked. "A little," came the reply, in a thick New York drawl. Encouraged, I pressed ahead with a follow-up question, but the shutters quickly descended.

"You're asking the wrong people," said the bigger of the two, defensively. "We're just passing through. We're not interested." A few inaudible grunts followed, and I realised that the conversation was over.

When the bus deposited the two men at Vaduz, they scuttled into one of the town's many faceless concrete banks, and that was the last I saw of them. Every bar and restaurant seems to be full of similar types. People don't talk in Liechtenstein: they whisper conspiratorially, even into their mobiles. Besuited, and clearly reluctant for others to hear their business, which inevitably involves money, a strange hush envelopes Vaduz.

It is also bizarrely bereft of people. A waiter in one of the town's swankiest bars explained: "Everyone is working in a bank, but they'll be out for lunch. There are only 324 unemployed people in the entire country, so it's kind of quiet."

The shops, which seem to specialise in selling items only the very rich can afford, such as Rolex and Cartier watches, seem more like museums than commercial enterprises. Staffed by glamorous-looking women, they seem like ghostly showcases of wealth, and I don't see anyone darken their exclusive doors all day.

For a fee of 1.5 Swiss francs (70 pence), visitors can have their passports stamped with the country's regal crest.

Above the ugly little tourist office in Vaduz sits a rather dilapidated castle, which looks as though it has had one too many extensions. This is where the principality's reigning monarch, Prince Hans Adam II, lives. He is currently threatening to sell up and move to Vienna unless local officials give him more power. Looking around, it is hard to see what that power could be over.

In mid-morning, a coachload of Japanese tourists arrive. They only stay for an hour and a half, but after about ten minutes, when they realise that they have 'done' Vaduz, they begin to look restless.

The tacky tourist boutiques are particularly pitiful, and do not help. Stuffed with Heidi-esque dolls and cowbells, and row after row of "famous" Liechtenstein stamps, trade is decidedly slack.

Tourism is not, I discover, Liechtenstein's strong point. The country's tourist board lists just four must-see historical sites: two castles, one government building and a pile of ruins.

Liechtenstein does, however, boast seven museums. They, however, are not much to write home about either: one is devoted to postage stamps, and another to skiing. The tourist board itself, in a rare flash of humour, concedes that the 11 villages which make up Liechtenstein are much of a muchness.

"The differences are hardly noticeable to the visitor," its website says. "But they are an integral part of the identity of the population of Liechtenstein, and often result in playful teasing."

At lunchtime, a few suits come out and eat before rushing back to their banks. Briefly, it seems that Liechtenstein is a real place, with real people who have everyday concerns.

The truth is, however, that there is little that is ordinary about Liechtenstein. The people who come here tend to be rich, famous or infamous.

Athina Roussel, the granddaughter of the Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, was spotted here a couple of weeks ago, just two days after she inherited a small fortune on her 18th birthday. Indeed, everyone from the late Colombian drugs kingpin Pablo Escobar to the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, is said to have used the principality's banking services.

I can see why. If you are looking for anonymity and privacy, then Liechtenstein is the place for you. However, as the country's tourist officials know to their cost, there is a reason for that.