Imagine being able to swap city smog for fresh mountain air, busy highways for flower-filled meadows and noisy traffic for birdsong. A small village high in the Swiss Alps seemed to offer just that, a chance for a more tranquil life, and thousands were ready to take them up on that offer. But as the saying goes “always read the fine print.”
The municipality of Albinen looks like it’s straight out of a movie. It has all the elements of an idyllic alpine location. There are forests, pastureland, waterways and, of course, spectacular snow-capped mountains. The air is crystal clear, and, most of the time, there is plenty of sunshine.
Located 4,183 feet above sea level in the Swiss Alps in southern Switzerland, Albinen municipality is made up of a village and agricultural pastures. It is situated within the canton of Valais, a popular tourist region known for its natural beauty, and a few miles from the spa town of Leukerbad.
Conservation efforts mean that there is also an abundance of plant and wildlife in the region. Lucky hikers can expect to spot chamois bucks, deer, foxes and the alpine ibex known as the steinbock. There are also many bird species in the area, which has many forests and flowering mountain meadows.
The village of Albinen is perched high on a mountainside, overlooking a steep slope into the Dala gorge. The striking church in the center is surrounded by rows of wooden houses, some of them 300 years old. While the village itself is picturesque, the view from the buildings is spectacular, as they all look out over the valley.
Albinen village has a rich history, which goes back at least as far as the 13th century. It was never densely populated however. In 1902, records say there were fewer than 400 people living there, and that was its population peak. At that time, there wasn’t even a shop or a pub.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of people in Albinen has been on the decline. Historically most of the population have been farmers, but, as in the rest of the Swiss Alps, that has been changing over the years. In 1990, there were fewer than 10 people working in agriculture in Albinen.
In the 1960s, a road to Albinen was built, making the village more accessible. Although the road didn’t stop people from leaving, it did kick-start a new industry – tourism. Thanks to its scenic location and proximity to famous Swiss Alps stations, including Leukerbad, it is tourism that now sustains most businesses in Albinen.
Tourism hasn’t been enough to keep the people of Albinen from leaving, however. In December 2017 there are only 240 residents. After three families left the village, there aren’t even enough children to sustain a local school. “Next year only one child will go to nursery school and one to primary school” municipality mayor Beat Jost told the Daily Mail.
The citizens of Albinen are not ready to give up on their village, however, and in August, a group of its younger residents came up with a solution. They petitioned that the municipality offer an incentive, in the form of grants, to anyone willing to relocate to the alpine village.
In November, the village held a secret vote to approve the measure. Mayor Jost had been campaigning for a yes vote, and he got it. “A clear result that makes me very happy,” he told the Daily Mail. Jost also said he was proud of the young citizens who had come up with the idea, which would stop the village from “moving towards an abyss.”
The basic terms of the deal are that an adult under 45 years old can expect 25,000 Swiss francs (about US$25,300) and 10,000 (US$10,100) per child, if they fit the criteria and move to Albinen. To many people, that sounded like a pretty good incentive.
As could be expected, an idyllic Swiss village in the Alps offering to pay people to live there became big news. Thousands of applications flooded Albinen from all around the world. The overwhelmed municipal employees issued a statement calling news reports “misleading” and accused them of causing confusion.
In fact, the authorities only seriously considered 1 percent of the applications. For one thing, only Swiss citizens or foreigners who had the required permits for residency were eligible. Also, the new residents were required to pay at least 200,000 Swiss francs (about US$202,800) for their house, which had to be a primary residence, not a holiday home.
Another condition was that applicants had to be under the age of 45. They also had to commit long-term. Anyone who leaves Albinen within ten years of moving there is required to repay the grant money in full.
Even if they receive the grant, life in Albinen comes with its challenges. After all, there all, there’s a reason so many have left. A dearth of jobs means that the new residents should either be self sufficient or prepared to travel. Families also need to be ready for their kids to bus to another town for school.
The declining populations of alpine villages are a problem all over Switzerland, with young people leaving for the greater opportunities offered by cities. Different communities have sought their own solutions. One mountain village, Corippo, has plans to make some vacant houses into guest accommodation.
It’s not just Switzerland either. In Italy nearly 2,500 small towns are at risk of being deserted. One such alpine village, Bormida, successfully offered cheap municipal housing to attract residents. The mayor of Bormida has also urged small villages to offer relocation funds of up to 2,000 euros (about US$2,300) to entice people to their dwindling communities.
Another Italian town, Candela, in Puglia, offers 800 euros for singles, 1,200 for couples and up to 2,000 for families to relocate there. Both Bormida and Candela have generated great interest. Bormida received 17,000 inquiries in just four days while Candela has had applications from as distant as New Zealand and has already housed six new families.
Judging by the amount of interest these offers have aroused, there are plenty of people willing to relocate to sleepy towns and villages, for the right incentive. Anyone interested in taking up Albinen on its offer better move fast though. It’s estimated that the municipality will have the funds to sponsor only five or ten families over the next five years.