Are the US National Parks run by the Swiss?

August 18, 2011, 4 Comments

Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Sequoia and Bryce. The National Parks are the jewels of western America, attracting millions of visitors every year and even having their own guidebooks. They are the main reason (other than seeing Las Vegas) to drive hundreds of miles in a few weeks and endure thousands of people doing the same – also known as a summer holiday. But while I was visiting quite a few of them across Arizona, California and Utah last month, I was struck by how much they reminded me of Switzerland. Not so much the spectaular landscape, though Yosemite (pictured left) is certainly closer to Swiss scenery than Arches, but the organisation. It left me wondering if the National Park Service (NPS) is in fact Swiss. Let’s look at the evidence:

Cleanliness. Every square inch of National Park was as clean as a Swiss street. Either they have the same secret elves clearing up every night, or they are the only places where Americans (and tourists) respect the environment and don’t litter. I particularly liked the bear-proof bins; such attention to practical detail is a very Swiss trait.

Rangers. I’m so used to seeing Swiss soldiers in town and on the trains, that it was rather comforting to be surrounded by men in uniform again. OK, and women, in the case of the park rangers. The big difference is that instead of drinking and generally wasting taxpayers’ money, the rangers were being very helpful and informative. The ‘best army in the world’ could learn a thing or two from the NPS, not least in hat design.

Transport. Apart from cities other than LA, many National Parks seem to be the only places in America where public transport is on a Swiss scale of efficiency. Regular shuttle buses that go where you need them to – and, better still, are free. Well done to Zion for actually grasping the nettle and banning private cars; if only Yosemite did the same.

Information. Never have I seen such a wealth of leaflets, talks, info boards and signs as in the National Parks. It was like meeting the love child of the Swiss tourist board and the Wanderweg organisers. Not only were walking distances clearly signposted (in America!) but handouts actually contained real information rather than advertorial nonsense.

Rules. America, and California especially, feels so relaxed compared to Switzerland. Shopping 24/7, instant iced water in restaurants, free parking, customer service that gives meaning to both words. And then you go to a National Park, where rules are everything. It was like being back on the mother ship: strict opening times, forced smiles, pass controls at the borders, a sense of having to conform. All in a good cause, at least.

Environment. The NPS are definitely members of the Swiss school of recycling, making it a prominent priority. Bins were plentiful and usually separated so that you never had an excuse not to recycle. Water stations, most noticeable in the Grand Canyon, encourage you to re-use rather than add to the refuse; refill instead of land-fill. It reminded me of the water fountains that inhabit every Swiss town; you need only ever buy one bottle of water.

Prices. Oh my God. How much for a cheese sandwich? Sorry but I forgot to bring my platinum credit card for that ice cream. I know it’s all relative (even National Park prices probably appear cheap to Americans visiting Switzerland), but sometimes paying through the nose for something mundane leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Memories should be of inspiring scenery not of breathtaking prices. Take note, Swiss tourism.

Four weeks, eleven Parks. Enough to make me contemplate what the USA would be like if it were run by the NPS? Better or worse? A police state where rules stifle freedom? Or a stunningly beautiful place where attention to detail and respect for the landscape go hand in hand. I would hope the latter, rather like a bigger version of Switzerland; in fact, almost perfect.

4 Comments on "Are the US National Parks run by the Swiss?"

  1. Janie Friday August 19th, 2011 at 01:13 AM · Reply

    I am wondering if I really want to visit Switzerland. I mean rules… what kind of rules.
    One of the things that seems very contradictory to me is the cleanliness which seems to be a Swiss trade mark but they allow smoking everywhere. That’s just not right. I hate cigarette smoke and to have it in your face while eating…enough said.

    Prices? Why is everything so expensive? Yes, I know Switzerland pays their workers more but tourist have to be rich to really enjoy all that Switzerland offers.

    Then I hear that the Swiss do not form lines but elbow people out of their way when getting on a train. Probably other place also.

    I think that Switzerland is a very unique place and I still would love to visit but the more I learn, the more disillusioned I become with the country.

    • Taka Takata Friday August 19th, 2011 at 10:58 AM · Reply

      Hey Janie,
      Don’t be afraid about the smoke. Now every restaurant is smoke-free. It’s still possible to smoke in so-called “fumoirs” or on the terrasse.
      Diccon describes very well the pros and cons of Switzerland. Switzerland is not perfect, but the life quality is certainly more enjoyable than in many other countries.

      About the prices, Anne is right, it’s actually very expensive for foreigners to come and visit Switzerland. Not that the swiss salaries are much better than in other places, but unfortunately for you, the Swiss franc is very high. The Euro went down, the dollar went down, so everybody wants to buy Swiss Franc.

      I hope you’ll discover Switzerland in a near future.

  2. Anne Friday August 19th, 2011 at 01:41 AM · Reply

    Hi Diccon,

    as a Swiss woman living in America, I enjoyed your post very much. I have somewhat forgotten how life in Switzerland is, and it’s also been quite a while since I’ve visited a National Park here in the US, but you make a lot of very good points.
    Now about the food prices, the exchange rate for American Dollar to Swiss Francs has never been so low (at least that I can remember), so imagine if it was 1,60 Francs per Dollar, like it was in 1996…

  3. Janie Sunday August 21st, 2011 at 12:30 AM · Reply

    Thanks, Taka.
    I was really turned off by the report of smoking in Switzerland. It is good to know that it is now smoke free in restaurants now.
    Why do so many Swiss smoke in the first place? It is not a clean habit. cigarette butts, ash and stained fingers are not my idea of cleanliness. But I am picking. I just hate cigarette smoke.
    As for the money issue, I really don’t understand why things need to be so expensive. I live in North Carolina and we have plenty of tourist. Yes, prices are higher on certain things during tourist season but not too much higher, a dollar or two. In some cases more like Art objects which are for the tourist anyway.

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