Monday, December 10, 2007

The Duty-Free Run

One of the curiosities of visiting Ischgl was the tax-free status of the neighboring valley (and connecting ski area) of Samnaun. Although part of Switzerland, Samnaun has no road access to the rest of that country. Through some medieval geo-carto-political blunder or another, you can only get there (whether on skis or via car) by going through Austria.

In the late 19th century, Samnaun's local notables took these lemons and made out with some pretty good lemonade. They persuaded the Swiss parliament to give them duty-free status so that they wouldn't have to pay heavy tariffs on food and other daily necessities imported up the valley from Austria.

They must have had some clever lawyers write up the papers, because today Samnaun is lined with "tax-free" shops peddling watches, jewelry and every other kind of other luxury goods. We were told that the Austrians really do post customs officials in huts along the ridge marking the border, on the lookout for would-be smugglers on skis, so we took the unusual step of skiing with our passports.

I decided to check out Samnaun's wares by taking the 10km "Duty-Free Run" from the summit of Ischgl down to the Swiss base area. The ski run continued right through the village, with its tax-free luxury wares on display in every shop window. Alas, however, it was Sunday. Every last shop was closed. Even this lawless, laissez-faire corner of Europe was still Europe.

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