He is just how you’d imagine a pioneer to be: someone who has an idea – his own idea– of building an attraction covering the whole of Switzerland. A real worker, a Jack of all Trades, whose vocabulary did not include Fridays and Sundays, holidays or simply lazing around.

 

He demanded a lot from his associates. But he also gave them a lot. When insurmountable disagreements occurred, he would always find all-round solutions. This identity may apply to various Swiss pioneers, but here we are referring to Pierre Vuigner who was born in Grimisuat in the canton of Valais and who 52 years ago had an idea that simply would not then let him rest. Based on the example of the Dutch park “Madurodam”, he wanted to create the same thing in Switzerland

A miniature Switzerland!

Aged 32, Pierre Vuigner ran a grocery shop in Grimisuat in Canton Valais where he was also the municipal clerk. His life seemed to be running smoothly, that was until the day the idea gripped him. This idea would not leave him both day and night. In order to bring the idea to life, he would first need land between 10 and 15,000 m² in an attractive position. His tour of Switzerland started in Küsnacht (Canton Zurich), moved on to Pratteln via Thun (Basel County Canton), and ended by taking him to Melide in Ticino a picturesque village that, nestled between mountains and the lake dam was waiting to be awoken from sleep.

 

For Pierre Vuigner’s idea, Melide was a real stroke of luck. The mayor, named Gallino, was so taken by the idea that he managed to overcome all the bureaucratic obstacles in a record time of three weeks. He was helped here with the fact that there were rumors that the unused land would be developed into a camp site, which had been a sore point with the village community. The deal between the Melide community and Pierre Vuigner gave him a 30-year lease on the site. The contract could then be extended by both parties, initially for 45 years, then for 60 and finally for 86 years. This would allow Swissminiatur to stay at its current location until 2042.

 

Pierre Vuigner, who meanwhile became the father to two sons, Dominique and Jean-Luc, now had the land but not the initial capital. But above all he needed the models. He sold his shop in Grimisuat as well as family property and moved to Melide with the proceeds. Still obsessed with his idea, he started working with some like-minded people. The first models, built to a scale of 1:25 were completed; a miniature train was to take visitors around the still desolate mini-Switzerland. There was not a lot of time as capital was melting like snow in the spring sunshine. Pioneer Pierre and his employees very quickly became dependent on income.

 

The 6thJune 1959 was set as the opening date. But just a few days before, the park was not a finished product. Pierre Vuigner looks back, grinning: “The ‘Matterhorn’ was still ‘under construction’, instead of being bright green, part of the lawn was a dreary mixture of brown and yellow. But we were all eternal optimists”.

He and his crew rolled up their sleeves. After days and nights of overtime, the park was finally finished, even if it was a month after opening! The holiday season was just about to start and it was precisely during this time that Swissminiatur would need to generate some income that would not only ensure its survival but also its further expansion.

 

For the first visitors the new attraction on the banks of Lake Lugano proved to be a real hit ad after four months Pierre Vuigner recorded sales of CHF 868,000. The only thing was: even these unexpected record sales would not be enough to pay off all of the due invoices. But over time, all the creditors were won over by the project and Pierre Vuigner paid all his dues by the end of 1960.

 

Then came the boom years of the golden 70s. At weekends and on public holidays, Italians would flood into Ticino. The reason for the invasion of the spend-happy southern neighbours is enlightening: 1000 Lire would get Italians seven Swiss Francs. 65% of all Swissminiatur visitors would cross the border at Chiasso and stock up on Swiss chocolate, cigarettes, storm the restaurants and department stores and accept the hour-long queues at the Swissminiatur tills.

 

At this time, Pierre Vuigner was investing considerable amounts in the leisure park each year – new models, new attractions. As an experienced PR professional he also knew to include stars and starlets, celebrities and popular faces in his advertisements. Caterina Valente, Lys Assia, Vico Torriani, Peter Kraus, Marisa Salina, Nicola de Bari, Anita Traversi, Febo Conti, Hermann Geiger, Marina Doria all posed for Swissminiatur, TV advertisements were recorded, folk festivals held. “In Melide”, says Pierre Vuigner, “I had found a goldmine.”

 

But the era of the golden fat 70s was followed by crisis years. The Italian Lira suffered a crash where the Italians then only got 70 centimes for 1000 Lire instead of 7 Swiss Francs. Switzerland, which used to be a shopping paradise became too expensive for them. Shopping tourism now developed in the opposite direction. Now each weekend thousands of bargain hunters from Ticino crossed the border into the lower priced Italy.

 

Swissminiatur then focused on countries around the world. Pierre Vuigner handed over the reins to his two sons Dominique and Jean-Luc in the Spring of 1986, but still remains on hand at all times to offer advice and support. Now aged 83, he puts the success story of Swissminiatur down to the following: “Mon Dieu, j’ai plus de chance que d’intelligence.” (My God, I have more guts than brains).

 

It was with humility, patience, daringness and pioneering spirit that Pierre Vuigner created something in Melide that has become somewhat of a Swiss institution over the last 50 years: Visiting and experiencing little Switzerland in an hour…