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Sunday August 19, 2007

Once-sleepy Swiss town booming after Brazilian soccer team visit


WEGGIS, Switzerland (AP) - This once-sleepy resort that charmed Mark Twain more than a century ago is suddenly booming with investment and confidence, thanks in large part to a chance it took on the Brazilian national soccer team. 

Brazil's choice of Weggis for its training camp ahead of the 2006 World Cup in Germany has since led to the renovation of one of its main hotels, a 1.5 million-Swiss franc (US$1.2 million; euro920,000) pavilion along the harbor and possibly a spa and recreational facility designed by star architect Mario Botta on nearby Mount Rigi. 

But the resort of 4,500 permanent residents on the shores of Lake Lucerne is trying to ensure that it does not alienate its traditionally older visitors as it seeks to lure more tourists and big-name guests. 

Tourism and hotel officials say they are being careful to preserve the quietude and peaceful natural setting that led Twain - who spent 10 weeks here in the summer of 1897 - to call Weggis the "charmingest place ... for repose and restfulness.'' 

"At first, everyone was afraid to do this in this lovely, small, calm place,'' said Dominic Keller, director of the tourism bureau for the area. "But nobody had complaints at the end when it worked, which is typically Swiss. We did not turn Weggis into a commercial city like Mallorca or Rio. The event simply paid off.'' 

Hosting Brazil proved to be worth 100 million Swiss francs (US$82 million; euro61 million) in marketing value for the town, he said. 

Overnight stays in Weggis' hotels have jumped up between 6 percent and 10 percent since the Brazilian team's two-week visit.  

Total overnight stays for 2007 are expected to reach 270,000, almost one-third the annual total of its more illustrious and much larger neighbor Lucerne. 

"Everybody used to think Weggis was for old people. Now, the young are coming,'' Keller said. 

Domenic Steiner, CEO of Weggis-based Thermoplan AG, which makes coffee machines for Starbucks Corp., said he spent 1.6 million francs (US$1.3 million; euro980,000) as part of the deal that convinced Brazil to choose Weggis over 40 other locations. 

The investment has already been recouped by the business it has generated, he said at the company's new headquarters overlooking the "Thermoplan Arena,'' a practice field that was temporarily converted into a 5,000-seat stadium for Brazil's workouts. 

"It has given a very good name to Thermoplan,'' he said of the family-controlled company that posted sales last year of about 100 million francs (US$82 million; euro61 million) and is growing at about 20 percent a year as Starbucks expands into new markets. 

Last year, with expectations running high that the superstars from Brazil would sweep to a record sixth World Cup victory, up to 80,000 spectators in all paid euro14 (US$18) apiece to attend the training sessions and get a chance for autographs from the likes of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos and Kaka. 

Brazil slumped to a disappointing quarterfinal defeat in the World Cup, but tourism and hotel officials said the positive vibe and economic success has helped spark interest from countries such as Italy, France, Norway and Sweden connected to next year's European soccer championships, which Switzerland is co-hosting with Austria. 

Steiner said he would not spend as much to bring another team to Weggis as he did for Brazil, but said he is investing in a synthetic field alongside Thermoplan Arena to protect the main pitch so that it could be used for future guests. 

"It will never be the same as Brazil. That was once in a lifetime,'' said Philipp Musshafen, deputy director of the Park Hotel Weggis, recalling Ronaldo dancing to loud music and the players beating Samba rhythms as they boarded a bus for a practice match. 

But Musshafen said business at the five-star hotel, a lakeside complex complete with spa and tennis courts, was booming among individual clients such as Mercedes-Benz maker DaimlerChrysler AG and French fashion house Christian Dior. 

"The marketing we got, Weggis and the whole region, was great. You can't pay for that,'' he said. "Everybody now knows Weggis.'' 

The temporary bleachers and party installations set up throughout town for Brazil could easily be reinstalled if a team wants to come, said Keller of the tourism bureau. 

But in a sign of the resort's burgeoning confidence, he described how earlier this year Weggis turned down top flight German club Borussia Dortmund, which Keller said had sought free accommodations as part of a package for holding its summer training camp at the resort. 

"Let's face it: Dortmund is a nice team, but they are no Brazil,'' Keller said. "We're interested in the high-level camps - national teams and the top clubs in Europe.'' 

With Brazilian flags still omnipresent in the town, Keller looked forward to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. 

"South Africa has a similar climate to what we have and the time difference is only one hour. There they have a winter that's not so cold, while here we have a summer that's not so hot,'' he said. "Maybe we can do it again with Brazil in three years.''-AP 

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